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‘Columbo’ bill seeks to curb guardian power

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While New Mexico waits, several states are moving ahead with key reforms.

Catherine Falk

Catherine Falk

Arizona, Hawaii, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and the U.S. Virgin Islands all passed versions of the so-called Peter Falk bill last year – legislation that originated with the late “Columbo” actor’s daughter, Catherine Falk.

She was denied visitation with her father at the end of his life, not because a court appointee stopped her, but rather because her father’s second wife did. She says she learned of her father’s death in 2011 from the media.

Falk urges states to pass legislation that declares: “A guardian may not restrict an incapacitated person’s right of communication, visitation, or interaction with other persons, including the right to receive visitors, telephone calls, personal mail or electronic communications.”

The Falk bill also requires guardians to alert applicable family members when their loved one’s residence changes and when he or she develops a life-threatening condition or dies.

Falk told the Journal she and representatives of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse met with New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, in the summer of 2015.

“We were (working) full force with his legal drafters and we came up with a draft bill … in December 2015,” she said. “It got nipped really quick. We were told this language is too dicey and we want to wait for the ULC law committee.”

Wirth declined to comment to the Journal for this story.

Asked what she believes the chances are for passage of the Falk bill in New Mexico, Catherine Falk said, “Very bleak. The biggest forces there are working against us. They are powerful and have deep pockets, and it’s very difficult to combat that.”

Begging for reform

Falk isn’t the only activist frustrated by the inability to enact elder guardianship safeguards in New Mexico.

Marcia Southwick

Marcia Southwick

“I’ve been speaking with legislators since the 2013 legislative session,” said Santa Fe resident Marcia Southwick, co-director of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, in describing the times she has discussed the issue with lawmakers and, literally, begged for reforms.

“I got up at committee hearings and said, ‘No one is monitoring this system!’ I’ve heard from many family members who say they have nowhere to turn.”

Southwick says she has been told the legislative leadership was waiting for proposals from the Uniform Law Commission, a national group of lawyers that proposes uniform laws for states to consider.

Southwick’s organization and other concerned groups monitoring draft versions of guardian reform as they are produced by the ULC committee on Guardianship and Protective Proceedings say they are discouraged because, they believe, proposed new language still benefits the for-profit players and does nothing to acknowledge or rein in problem guardians, conservators or caretakers.

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