Guardianship Scams In I Care A Lot Are Actually A Real Thing
If you love someone in eldercare, Netflix’s I Care A Lot, a slick thriller about guardianship fraud, is the stuff of recurring nightmares. “It’s just a story,” you might tell yourself when you jacknife awake in a cold sweat at 3:00 a.m., wrenched from a monstrous dream about Rosamund Pike selling your grandmother’s valuables—but not so fast. While the film isn’t explicitly based on a single true story, it’s constructed from real life events: namely, the myriad guardianship scams ransacking the wealth and autonomy of countless older Americans.
I Care A Lot centers on Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a seemingly saintly entrepreneur who runs a thriving business as a court-appointed guardian for elderly individuals who can no longer manage their own care. But there’s a catch: Marla is systematically defrauding her vulnerable clients, racketeering alongside doctors and nursing home administrators to identify susceptible targets, seize legal control of their lives, then auction off their assets to pay herself for her services. J Blakeson, the writer and director behind the film, hatched the idea after reading news stories about similar scams.
“The idea first came when I heard news stories about these predatory legal guardians who were exploiting this legal loophole and exploiting the vulnerability in the system to take advantage of older people, basically stripping them of their life and assets to fill their own pockets,” Blakeson said. “These stories were horrifying and not uncommon. So I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole in reading about these various stories happening in various places and thought there was something almost Kafkaesque about somebody knocking on your door and just taking you away for a reason you didn’t think was valid. They had the law on their side and there was nothing you could do.”
Marla is a professional legal guardian, meaning that she is appointed by the court to care for elderly individuals deemed “incapacitated” or “incompetent.” Guardians are often family members or professionals (frequently lawyers), who are legally bound to manage a vulnerable individual’s assets, caring for their estate as well as, in some cases, their day-to-day physical and medical care. An audit by the guardianship fraud program in Palm Beach County estimates that over $273 billion in assets are controlled by guardians in the United States. The arrangement is often made to protect elderly people who cannot manage their own care and keeping, though the role of professional guardian is vulnerable to a profit motive, with guardians skimming money off their wards’ estates in order to compensate their efforts at a steep hourly rate. I Care A Lot entertains the very real question of how to determine the level of a person’s “incapacitation” or “incompetence,” with Marla falsifying medical records to have her right-minded victims seized against their will.
In a report on legal guardianship by The New York Times, Phyllis Funke, a 77-year-old retired journalist with a master’s degree, a pilot’s license, and several hundred thousand dollars in investments, spoke about how desolate her life became after being declared an “incapacitated person” by the state of New York.
“I’ve been bullied, blackmailed and stripped of the things I need to live, including my money,” Funke said. “Everything has been taken away from me. I have no access to my bank accounts. I don’t have the money to pay for the medications that I’m prescribed. I don’t get mail. I can’t choose my own doctors.”
Funke went on to compare her situation to incarceration, though she then walked that statement back, saying, “It’s worse than incarceration. At least in prison you have rights.”
According to a report by the National Center for State Courts, Funke is one of somewhere between one and three million adults in guardianships. It’s a difficult subject to quantify, as legal records are often sealed, and no standardized public record-keeping procedure exists. As a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office revealed, the agency “could not locate a single Web site, federal agency, state or local entity, or any other organization that compiles comprehensive information on the issue.” The Times reports that New York requires only a one day certification course to become a professional guardian; aspiring guardians are not even required to subject themselves to background checks, as the state relies on the honor system. If it sounds like a system ripe for exploitation, that’s because it is—and Marla is far from the only scammer in the game. Blakeson compared Marla and scammers like her to gangsters, describing a complex scam of bilking vulnerable elderly people for financial gain.
“Marla’s character and these characters in real life sort of struck me as being a little bit like gangsters,” Blakeson said. “They come in and they steal something under false pretenses and then they sort of strip it for parts and then pump all the money out of it they can. Where they’ve got assets, they use those assets and overcharge and overcharge and overcharge, and when they run out of those assets and they get put on to government money, they then just store them in the worst care home. They run through their money as fast as possible, store them in the worst care home and just forget about them. Just park them and then move on to the next one, and that felt almost like a gangster’s operation.”
In 2018, a Marla Grayson-esque figure named April Parks, a former Nevada legal guardian, pled guilty to six felony charges, including two counts of elder exploitation, earning her anywhere from sixteen to forty years in prison. Over the course of twelve years, Parks, who owned a company called A Private Professional Guardian, managed the cases of more than 400 wards, many of whom she legally entrapped through hearings that lasted less than two minutes. Prosecutor Jaclyn O’Malley argued that Parks, much like Marla, built a whisper network of hospital social workers and medical staff members who generated leads for Parks to prey on. Though Parks was jailed, the damage was done, with many of her victims committed to nursing home facilities, medicated to the point of incoherence, and locked in the guardianship system for life. As the American Bar Association reports, a guardianship arrangement is “permanent, leaving no way out… until death do us part.”
In 2018, the United States Senate Committee on Aging called for an overhaul of the legal guardianship system, warning that “unscrupulous guardians” have leveraged their position to manipulate the vulnerable, then “liquidate assets and savings for their own personal benefit.” Approximately 10% of American seniors are thought to be victims of elder abuse, yet Congress has yet to act on reforming the guardianship system. Claude Pepper, a Florida congressman, described guardianship as “the most punitive civil penalty that can be levied against an American citizen, with the exception, of course, of the death penalty.” Until legal reform happens, American seniors will remain vulnerable, while the Marla Graysons of the nation will run amok, restricting the liberty of our most helpless loved ones.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.