Charles Waldon spent decades working several jobs while raising a family of five children. He invested in real estate in South Florida and in Georgia, all aimed at building a nice nest for retirement.
"I worked all my life, you know, and tried to build up a retirement," said Waldon via Skype Monday. "I think I did a pretty good job."
But Waldon can’t enjoy the fruits of the retirement he worked so hard to build. The 85-year-old former firefighter is in the midst of a family conflict between his youngest daughter, Carla Alger, and his daughters – Sandra Dunn, Inez Howard and Glenda Waldon. The family’s strong divisions over money, care of their parents, and properties and produced accusations of exploitation from both sides. So Alger asked Miami-Dade Probate Court to help protect her parents and the retirement funds they need during their senior years, she said.
"Granted I started the process out of desperation because I thought if I don’t do something they [her sisters] are going to take mom and dad,” Alger said while in court last week.
Her sister Sandra "Sandi" Dunn disagrees.
“My dad is on food stamps. She’s preventing him for accessing his own money,” Dunn said.
Last year, a Miami-Dade probate judge appointed a professional guardian for the couple – Charles and Peggy Waldon – after a panel of doctors said they were incompetent. Peggy, who suffers from dementia and requires round the clock care, is a ward of the state.
"She always ordered me, because mom was not a passive person at all, to be taken care of at home," Alger said of her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer disease. “And that’s a promise I made to her. That’s a big motivation why I filed the petition."
No Financial Oversight
With Florida’s 3.7 million people over 65 years of age, elder exploitation has become the crime of the 21st century, experts said. The guardianship system is driven by money and entrenched in relationships with all the ward’s assets used to pay the fees of all attorneys, medical experts and the guardian, sometimes exhausting seniors’ savings.
"When you take away someone’s constitutional rights and you put into third party hands – a total of $270 billion in the United States – it is just simply rife for fraud, waste and abuse,” said Sharon Bock, Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller.
Charles and Peggy Waldon are among 8,000 guardianship cases in Miami-Dade probate courts system with virtually no financial oversight or a system in place to watch over how the money is spent. Miami-Dade is hardly alone – a few counties in the state have watchdogs looking over the trouble guardianship system.
In recent years, Palm Beach County has stepped into that role by using trained auditors and fraud investigators who work for the clerk and comptroller’s office under the division of the inspector general in charge of investigating fraud, waste and abuse and by performing in-depth audits.
"I think that now the whole United States has seen that a court system without an intermediary, like the clerk, is a conflict of interest. That’s been proven,” Bock said.
To address this issue across the state, Florida Elder Affairs Secretary Sam Verghese and Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock announced Friday a pilot investigative program during Florida State Guardianship Association annual conference held in Fort Lauderdale.
"If you are unscrupulous and you are looking for an easy way to make money or especially targeting the elderly, you are not going to look to guardianships any more. We are closing that hole,” Bock said.
The program will include a hotline where people can file a complaint that would spark an investigation into how senior’s money is being spent by a guardian.
The Waldon sisters are not accusing their parents’ guardian of financial wrongdoing.
Few Rights Left
Last year, probate court granted Charles Waldon limited guardianship, stripping him of the right to make financial and medical decisions. But a few rights were left to him, including the right to choose where to live, travel with assistance and his social environment.
Sandra Dunn says her father is not incompetent.
"I didn’t know there was a family dispute. All I know that all of the sudden she’s [Alger] petition the court to have the control over everything they own and over them,” said Dunn, who lives in the Keys. “Also, when she claimed that my father is incompetent or incapacitated or whatever the word they use. I thought, What?”
Charles Waldon has been in Lookout Mountain, Ga., since October. His sudden departure after the courts deemed him incapacitated on Sept. 22, 2015 has created a legal storm on both sides.
But the story of how Waldon got to Georgia differs depending on whom you ask – Alger, the guardian and the courts here in Florida said that Waldon’s other daughters “influenced and brainwashed” their father and took him to Georgia against his will, court documents shows.
The daughters, including Dunn, denied those accusations. Charles and Peggy Waldon used to spend several months of the year in Lookout Mountain, where they have a four-bedroom house, and the rest of the year in South Florida.
"He’s been saying that he wanted to go to Georgia since he got tricked into coming down here,” said Dunn, who did not travel with her sisters and father to Georgia. “So he came here, never got to speak to the judge, lost all his rights and then whenever he had the right to choose wherever he wanted to live, he chose to go to Georgia. He had the right to do that."
Charles Waldon has testified in Walker County, Ga.’s courts twice as the guardian and the attorneys she’s hired asked the court to enforce the pickup order to bring him back to Florida.
In both occasions, the court has ruled that it lacks the jurisdiction to enforce the legal action.
On Dec. 1, 2015, Waldon answered questions about who is currently the president of the U.S., where he was born, his wife’s birthdate and mathematical problems. During that testimony he even noted several times that this particular day was special because it was his 65 anniversary.
Waldon also noted that he never met the judge who approved the guardianship. He described a phone call with the judge about the three doctors that declared him incompetent.
"I asked him what did the three doctors that I went down to see, what they…was the results? He said that’s court material, you can’t have that and he told my lawyer the same thing,” Waldon said during his testimony on Dec. 1.
He also testified in February answering all the questions.
Lookout Mountain Circuit Judge Brian M. House said during a Feb. 6 hearing that he’d researched the law and Waldon’s case should be transferred to Georgia because his domicile is in Walker County now.
"They might have found him incompetent down there [Florida], but the day he testified in front of me, he was not incompetent. Okay?” House said. “He was…I understood everything he said. And he said he came up here on his own free will."
Last week, Charles Waldon was supposed to appear in probate court via Skype after his attorney filed a petition to terminate his guardianship in Florida because he no longer lives here.
But his attorney, who was appointed by the guardian’s attorney, was not able to connect via Skype with Waldon who was at his attorney’s office in Georgia.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Genden denied the petition.
"We have a spouse who is a 60-year spouse, who is a plenary ward, who is in need of the assets that are in that trust,” Genden said. “I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m trying to get Mr. Waldon back and trying to get his money back."
Waldon doesn’t have control over his money, including his firefighter’s pension, since he left Florida. Early this year, the guardian filed a monthly budget with Miami-Dade probate court to cover Waldon’s personal expenses in Georgia like electric, water, health insurance bills and groceries, documents show.
"I’m not getting anything except Social Security and food stamps," Waldon said. "I went to Social Security and they said that my guardian had no right to seize my Social Security. They gave it to me."
In the meantime, their guardian, attorneys and caretakers are racking up bills and will get paid from the Waldons’ money. But how much they are getting paid is a mystery because documentation such as monthly invoices is not part of the public file.
At a time in his life where Waldon should be tending to his wife and enjoying life, his15 grandkids and 27 great-grandchildren, he’s worrying about his wife and the future.
"I want my wife back and my life back and my freedom back," he said.
Waldon, his three daughters, grandkids and other relatives are not allowed to talk to Peggy Waldon on the phone.
"I feel my heart is split in shreds. I don’t know how to go anywhere from here,"Dunn said, breaking in tears. "I miss my mom. I want her to be with Dad. She feels safe with Dad and Dad needs to be with her too."