When Guardianship Turns into a Nightmare

Kim Stryker, a Virginia resident, was a long-distance caregiver for her father, Steven Stryker, a Navy veteran residing in Florida. Steven had his share of health issues over the years including alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his time in Vietnam. Steven’s health got worse in 2018. Because Kim lived so far away, a family friend, Linda Lanier, would often check in on Steven, but was never officially named as Agent under Power of Attorney.

In August 2018, while Lanier was out of town, Kim said that her father was taken into custody under Florida’s Baker Act and forced into treatment at an AdventHealth Florida hospital in Orlando. Family members didn’t know why he was taken to AdventHealth instead of a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic where he had received treatment in the past.

According to Kim, her father spent almost six weeks at AdventHealth — all while the family was kept in the dark about his condition and treatment. On August 8, 2018, AdventHealth filed a petition asking a judge to appoint an emergency guardian for Steven Stryker, and a court-appointed guardian by the name of Rebecca Fierle was named.

The hospital told the court that Steven Stryker appeared to be in “imminent danger” and was “unable to make decisions that would be safe and reasonable for his plan of care, and is not able to effectively manage his finances.” The same motion also accused acquaintances of Stryker of stealing his money, although no reason or evidence was given as to why that was suspected. AdventHealth’s motion to appoint an emergency guardian also said Stryker “has a daughter whose whereabouts are currently unknown, but has no known extended family otherwise.”

Disaster Strikes When Court-Appointed Guardian is Assigned

Kim Stryker maintained that Rebecca Fierle, the court-appointed guardian, never got into contact with her. Kim found it strange that the court said that her whereabouts were unknown, when her contact information could be found quickly via a Google search.

After the court appointed Fierle as Steven Stryker’s guardian, Kim said her father became nearly out of reach. She was unaware at first of where he was or how to get a hold of him. “I tracked Rebecca down when he started getting bounced around from hospital to hospice to ALF (assisted living facility), and I was like, ‘What is happening?’ and I couldn’t even find him,” Kim said.

By May 2019, Steven Stryker, 75, had been moved to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. While he was there, Kim said her father began to choke, but hospital staff were prohibited from providing lifesaving care, because unbeknownst to the family, Fierle had filed a do not resuscitate (DNR) order. Steven Stryker died as a result of the hospital being unable to perform lifesaving measures.

Kim said, “Fierle filed the DNR order against my father’s wishes. Hospital records show he had a chronic health issue that made it difficult at times to swallow. He definitely wanted to be resuscitated specifically, because he had a disorder that caused him to choke.”

Inquiry Filed into Steven Stryker’s Death

The Clerks’ Statewide Investigations of Professional Guardians Alliance launched an inquiry on behalf of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs’ Office of Public and Professional Guardians. The investigation determined that the week before Steven Stryker’s death, doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital tried to get Fierle to drop the DNR without success. Investigators said in their report they interviewed Dr. Kirtikumar Pandya, a psychiatrist who examined Steven Stryker.

“He (Dr. Pandya) stated that he was concerned about the DNR filed for the Ward by Fierle,” the investigative report states. “While he acknowledged that the Ward did not have the capacity to make all decisions, Dr. Pandya believed that he had the ability to decide that he wanted to live. Dr. Pandya said that the Ward wanted to be resuscitated and wanted to be alive. Dr. Pandya said that, in his opinion, Fierle’s reasons for the DNR were not rational also noting that she does not have a healthcare background.”

Investigators said in the report that Fierle told them and others that it was “common for her and that she files DNR for Wards regularly,” and that “her decision was ‘a quality of life, rather than quantity matter,’ ” the investigative report reads.

Kim Stryker only learned of her father’s death after Linda Lanier, the family friend, sent flowers to him in the hospital. When the flowers arrived, the women were notified by a nurse that he’d died a couple of days before.  

Fierle Arrested for Abusing Her Powers

The state investigation ultimately determined that Fierle moved Steven Stryker to multiple assisted living facilities that did not meet his needs as well as filing a DNR against Stryker’s explicit wishes. The Court found that Ms. Fierle “abused her powers” by requesting that incapacitated clients not receive medical treatment if their heart or breathing stopped — without permission from their families or the court, records show.

According to court records, Fierle was removed as guardian during that hearing, no longer overseeing the care of about 95 seniors. New emergency temporary guardians are being appointed. The judge also revoked all DNRs that Fierle has signed. Kim Stryker believed that “if not for Fierle’s actions, her father would still be alive,” investigators wrote.

According to a recent news report, Rebecca Fierle may not stand trial until 2021 for the death of Steven Stryker, due to the coronavirus pandemic. And a lawsuit filed against Fierle by the Stryker family will be delayed even longer after a judge granted her request to put the civil trial on hold until her criminal case is resolved.

How Could This Happen?

A judge can appoint a guardian to oversee the welfare of a senior, extending the legal right to make decisions on behalf of the person’s affairs, health care, and finances with control of various bank accounts and other assets.

Guardianship starts with a court proceeding in which a judge declares someone incompetent and gives another person the power to make personal and medical decisions for the person who has been declared incompetent. The person authorized with decision-making power is known as the guardian and the person for whom the decisions are being made is known as the ward. Guardianship over the person typically goes along with conservatorship over property, which in some states is called guardianship over property.

Guardianship and conservatorship laws vary from state to state. Most states require that notice of the pending action be given to some or all known close relatives, so that interested relatives can appear at the court hearing and intervene or at least make their wishes heard, but in emergency situations such as the one above, where apparently the county got involved, it is easy to see how a busy county employee might not take the time to try to track down a family member whose exact name is unknown. Presumably Steven Stryker was able to articulate that he had a daughter, but also presumably was not able to provide her name or contact information.

Guardianship Can Be Avoided if You Plan in Advance

A Power of Attorney is a legal document created by one person, known as the principal, to give another person, known as the agent (sometimes called attorney-in-fact), legal power to act on behalf of the principal. The document can grant either broad and unlimited powers or limited powers to act in specific circumstances or over specific types of decisions. Typically, a Power of Attorney is effective immediately, but is intended to be used only when necessary — at such time when the principal has reached the point where he or she is no longer able to make sound decisions or exercise sound judgment.

To read about why a general Power of Attorney is greatly preferred to guardianship, please see my article on this subject, “Why Guardianship Should be a Last Resort.”

Do You Have a Power of Attorney in Place?

If you have not done a Power of Attorney, now is the time to get it done as part of a comprehensive Incapacity Plan which includes an Advance Medical Directive and Long-term Care Directive®, or as part of a comprehensive Estate Plan which includes an Incapacity Plan and a living trust to avoid after-death probate. Please contact us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Power of Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Power of Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Power of Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Power of Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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