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Chief justice of probate presses for an overhaul

Paula M. Carey also called for legislative aid. Paula M. Carey also called for legislative aid.
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January 13, 2008

Paula M. Carey, the new chief justice of Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, said she is determined to address the lack of medical documentation and other flaws in the court's handling of guardianship cases.

Carey, who was known for her diligence in guardianship cases during her years as a probate judge in Norfolk County, said the court should appoint independent fact-finders to review cases before guardianship decisions are made or have an attorney appointed to represent the patient. But Carey said the courts cannot routinely do this without legislative authority and funding.

Carey also expressed hope that the state will soon approve an overhaul of probate law that has been mired in the Legislature for nearly a decade.

The legislation would require much more detailed medical information, limit the scope of guardian powers, require the court to examine a guardian's qualifications, and provide for the incapacitated person to be present at the hearing and have the right to counsel. The measure would require additional court approval for nursing home placements and mandate guardians to file detailed annual reports about the physical and mental health of the person entrusted to their oversight. The bill would also create a Public Guardianship Commission to set and enforce standards for court-appointed guardians.

Given the bill's long shelf life, Carey acknowledged that the probate courts should have moved more quickly on their own to implement some changes administratively.

"I can't explain to you why it wasn't done before," she said.

Her predecessor, Sean M. Dunphy, who retired in September, said in an interview that he was hesitant to embark on any major overhaul while the legislation was pending.

Some of those changes, Carey said, are about to happen after a yearlong review begun by Dunphy. Perhaps within a month, Carey said, probate courts will begin demanding greater medical proof that guardianship is warranted. She said her office had already initiated additional training in guardianship cases for judges, lawyers, and guardians.

"I recognize that we in Massachusetts are not in the forefront in terms of guardianship reform," Carey said. "We are now making significant efforts."

JEFF KELLY

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