BRANDON, Fla. — In late July, Christine Lagisquet was bidding her friend Stephanie Figueredo goodbye at the door of her Brandon home.
The 92-year-old’s kitchen was stocked from her recent trip to the grocery store — replete with smoked salmon and the cheeses that remind her of her childhood home in Bordeaux, France.
That’s when Figueredo noticed a stranger standing outside.
The woman had pixie-short hair and a purple polo shirt that read, “Florida Professional Guardian Services.”
Her name was Susan Whitney, and she told Figueredo she had been court appointed as Mrs. Lagisquet’s temporary guardian. Whitney took the older woman’s car keys. She would be back within the week for Mrs. Lagisquet’s credit cards.
“I’m like her mom now,” she explained, according to Mrs. Lagisquet and Figueredo. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Lagisquet, her son had alleged she was mentally incapacitated and filed a request to place her under guardianship — a legal process that cedes control of a person’s decision-making power to others.
A judge had temporarily stripped her of nearly all her civil rights — including her ability to vote, handle her finances or determine her housing.
Guardianships are particularly common for older adults with severe dementia or other cognitive impairments. A 2018 AARP analysis estimated that 1.3 million adults in the United States are under guardianships. Eighty-five percent of them are over age 65.
The need is expected to grow as one in five residents reaches retirement age by 2030. But critics say it’s too easy to fall into the guardianship system, and once a court views someone as “incompetent,” it can be hard to regain control.
Mrs. Lagisquet’s situation is a case study, her supporters say. Her experience demonstrates how harsh a measure guardianship can be for the person within it.
Mrs. Lagisquet is fighting to keep her guardianship from becoming permanent. Three evaluators have weighed in on her “incapacity” ahead of a hearing next month.
”I feel like a prisoner, oui,” she said. “How would you feel, stuck in here without any possibility to get out?”
In the state of Florida, anyone can nominate any other adult to be placed in a guardianship.
Ideally, it’s meant to protect vulnerable people who cannot make decisions for themselves. Recent cases like those of Britney Spears and Rebecca Fierle, a former professional guardian in Orlando charged with abuse and neglect, have raised questions about whether the system always functions as intended.
Many people are under guardianship who shouldn’t be, said Viviana Bonilla López, an attorney at Disability Rights Florida and a member of the newly launched Guardianship Improvement Task Force. “It’s troubling to me how easy it is to do.”
Temporary guardianships usually become permanent, according to Pamela Teaster, the director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech and one of the foremost researchers on guardianships.
Teaster said a lack of data collection on guardianships nationally makes it hard to vet critics’ claims that the system is nefarious. “I don’t have data to support it either way,” she said, “but in my experience, the vast majority are there because there’s a real, emergent situation.”
Typically, the estate of the person under the guardianship pays the fees of everyone involved, from their guardian, to their guardian’s lawyer, to their own attorney, to the petitioner’s attorney.
Mrs. Lagisquet has not yet been billed in her case, according to court filings, but Whitney has charged her wards up to $120 an hour, records show. The expenses add up. Wards pay when a guardian listens to voicemails or reads emails from anyone who contacts them related to the person’s case.
Whitney’s attorney, Gerald Hemness, said that fees vary under state law based on several factors, including how complex a case is and how much it interferes with a guardian’s ability to handle other cases. The more burdensome a guardianship, the more entitled a guardian is to a higher fee. (A call he took from the Tampa Bay Times will be billed as a small fee to Mrs. Lagisquet, he said.)
The case itself
Pierre Lagisquet filed his request to place his mother under emergency guardianship and consider her for permanent guardianship on July 14. He alleged that she suffers from “dementia, paranoid, and other aging related disorders and is unable to care for or make decisions for herself,” according to court records. Pierre Lagisquet did not respond to requests for comment, and his attorney Ying Gao said they would not discuss the ongoing case.
A copy of Christine Lagisquet’s trust was included in the filings, demonstrating she could pay the legal fees of those involved in the process. Her home was valued at $178,014, and she has $84,000 in a bank account. Her assets in cash were listed as “TBD.” No court filings indicate that Pierre Lagisquet submitted medical records to prove a dementia diagnosis.
Mrs. Lagisquet says she’s never received one. Her son listed Fabio Ferrari, a gynecologist, as her primary doctor. Medical records from a May 10 consult with the physician provided to the Times marked Mrs. Lagisquet as having “normal” neurological and psychological functioning. It also noted she did not display signs of depression or mental distress.Emergency temporary guardianships are granted if the court finds that there is “imminent danger” requiring immediate action. The person who is alleged to be incapacitated is supposed to be notified at least 24 hours before an emergency hearing, according to state law. An exception can occur if the person filing the petition demonstrates that “substantial harm to the alleged incapacitated person would occur if the 24-hour notice is given.”
Pierre Lagisquet’s claim that his mother was in imminent danger hinged on three points, according to court documents: First, she’d had multiple instances of bleeding and needed a check-up, as the physician suspected cancer.
The petition also alleges Mrs. Lagisquet was trying to sell her home at the suggestion of a man who worked on her yard and said she should “move in with him and his family in Palm Beach.” When Mrs. Lagisquet tried to list her home in Brandon, the real estate agent called Pierre Lagisquet out of concern for her mental capacity. The family ran a public records search and found that the gardener had been convicted of crimes, including several felonies in 2014.
The family also found an address for him in Brandon, not Palm Beach.
Mrs. Lagisquet, according to the petition, was “at extremely high risk of financial exploitation and potential physical harm if she left” with him. The Times confirmed that the man is living in West Palm Beach, at his sister’s home.
Finally, the petition alleges that Mrs. Lagisquet used to dress herself “meticulously and stylishly every day,” but “has not been able to do so for herself for the last year.”
Christine Lagisquet said she’d declined a biopsy because she didn’t want to be on an operating table at her age — and if she did have cancer, she had no interest in going through treatment. Medical records from the May 10 consult corroborate this claim.
“Any further steps are on her terms and what she deems important,” Ferrari wrote in summarizing a conversation he’d had with Pierre Lagisquet’s wife.
Mrs. Lagisquet said the man who mowed her lawn told her about his criminal history when she hired him. He visited with her often, occasionally drove her to errands and had become like family. So when he told her he was moving to West Palm Beach and suggested she look for houses too, she thought, why not? She didn’t like her tiny house in Brandon and didn’t feel connected to her son, who was her only child and lived next door.
She said she never planned to live with her gardener’s family, and he never asked her for money beyond the lawn service he provided. She said she wasn’t even trying to move to Palm Beach anymore. The houses were too expensive.
The gardener, Michael Wright, corroborated Mrs. Lagisquet’s account. He’d moved to West Palm Beach in February, he said, but said he still drives to Brandon every two weeks to mow Mrs. Lagisquet’s lawn.
“It’s because she’s my friend,” Wright said. “I love that lady.”
Wright said his most recent convictions stemmed from turning in a forged check at a time when he was homeless and struggling with addiction.
“But the morning of my arrest was the last time I had alcohol,” he said. “It was a new beginning for me. And I told Christine all that.”
He saw her four or five times a week prior to the move, he said.
“Does she need a ride to the grocery store? Yes, she does,” Wright said. “But she mops her whole freakin’ floor by herself, she cleans her house herself, she does her laundry by herself. She just can’t drive.”
Wright said he had not invited her to move in with him at his sister’s home.
“I mean, I just want her happy,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s here, there. I don’t care if it’s in Alaska. As long as she’s happy, you know?”
Figueredo, 47, acknowledged that these days, Mrs. Lagisquet opts for linen pants that are more comfortable to wear around the house than some of the fancier clothes she has in her closet. She and Mrs. Lagisquet both say Mrs. Lagisquet still dresses herself each morning, in addition to applying makeup daily.
A hearing was held via Zoom on July 15, the day after Pierre Lagisquet filed his petition — notifications were sent to Pierre Lagisquet and his lawyer. The judge granted his emergency motion the next day, appointing Whitney as temporary guardian. Her order said there appeared to be imminent danger.
Mrs. Lagisquet was not served until July 20.
Concerns and confusion
Though she lives next to her son, Christine Lagisquet told friends that he rarely visited. She had moved from Orlando after the death of her husband Jacques in 2017. People who came to her house several times a week, like her friend Figueredo and neighbor Beverly Okonek, 75, say they had not seen Pierre stop by.
Jacques Lagisquet had a long career as a civil engineer. Five friends and neighbors said they felt concerned that the family was attempting to preserve the assets he left behind at the expense of Mrs. Lagisquet’s emotional well being.
They said Christine Lagisquet seems lucid. None of them could recall a moment when they’d felt concerned about her mental capacity and noted that she recalled dates easily. Wouldn’t they know if something was wrong?
Hemness, her guardian’s attorney, said Mrs. Lagisquet is “definitely not perfectly fine.”
“She has several indicators that indicate she’s got capacity problems, I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
Guardianships are complicated, as are the health conditions that often spark them, according to Teaster of Virginia Tech.
“Often people will say, ‘Well, she’s just sharp as a tack!’” Teaster said. “It’s an opinion of the moment, but it’s not necessarily an accurate one — or it is. The problem is you don’t know.”
It’s why guardianship examinations are so important, said Teaster.
To put someone in a guardianship permanently in Florida, the person alleged to be incapacitated must undergo three examinations to determine mental and physical condition.
This worries Mrs. Lagisquet. She said her evaluations were conducted in English while French is her native language. When she gets excited, she’ll sometimes revert to French — something friends said she has done for years.
When her son calls, they speak in French, according to neighbor Okonek, who would visit Mrs. Lagisquet around three times a week.
The guardianship petition Pierre Lagisquet filed lists his mother’s primary spoken language as “English.”
A longtime friend of Mrs. Lagisquet who lives in France, Dominique Lucbernet, emailed lawyer Hemness suggesting that they hire a French translator.
“Susan Whitney has no trouble communicating with Ms. Lagisquet, and they get along well,” Hemness replied, according to emails obtained by the Times.
State law says the examining committee must communicate with someone in a language they are fully capable of understanding, according to Bonilla López.
In an interview with the Times, Hemness said Mrs. Lagisquet is “very capable of interacting and communicating in English.”
According to a court document filed on Aug. 12, two of the evaluators determined that a plenary guardianship was necessary — meaning her guardian will control all aspects of her life. One recommended a limited guardianship, which would leave Mrs. Lagisquet only with the right to vote and make decisions about her social life.
Right to risk?
Mrs. Lagisquet acknowledged that her son, or a judge, might not understand her choices. But they’re hers, she said.
“If the doctors think I have dementia, they’re the ones who are crazy, not me,” she said with a tap on her kitchen table.
Hemness told the Times that Mrs. Lagisquet has “valuable property in her home.” This includes a large amount of cash, according to emails obtained by the Times.
It’s more than what she needs to pay bills and isn’t safe, he wrote to Lucbernet on Aug. 2.
During the Nazi occupation of France, Mrs. Lagisquet’s parents lost “everything” because they would not do business with the Germans, Lucbernet said. And, she said, it’s a cultural norm for many French people to keep large amounts of cash at home.
Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they’re incapable of managing all aspects of their life, Bonilla López said.
People should consider less restrictive options before attempting to place someone under a guardianship, she said.”I’m against depriving people of their civil liberties,” said Gao, Pierre Lagisquet’s attorney. “Guardianship is a very harsh measure. But sometimes it is necessary.”
Mrs. Lagisquet has attempted to hire a lawyer of her choosing, rather than her court-appointed attorney Jonathan Hackworth. An alternative lawyer filed a notice of appearance and motion on her behalf on Aug. 12, and an emergency hearing was held over Zoom three hours later.
This time, Mrs. Lagisquet was present, observing from a phone screen inside her home. But according to a court document filed by Circuit Court Judge Richard Weis, she “was unable to recognize” or “recall ever meeting” with either attorney.
The lawyer she wanted to hire withdrew his motion after the hearing.
Lucbernet said that Mrs. Lagisquet told her shortly after that she could not make out the faces of anyone on the call because the screen icons were too small.
“She is 92 and had never used Zoom before!” Lucbernet later told the Times. “They are treating her like she is a 2-month-old baby. But when a baby cries, someone intervenes. She cannot cry, because nobody will do anything.”
After the Times reached out to Hackworth about Mrs. Lagisquet’s evaluations on Aug. 10, Whitney’s attorney Hemness contacted the newsroom. Hemness stated that the Times was not authorized to speak with Mrs. Lagisquet without his client’s consent, or publish any of Mrs. Lagisquet’s personal information.
The same day, Whitney informed Figueredo that she was no longer able to see or speak to Mrs. Lagisquet without permission, Figueredo said.
“She never flat-out told me to not email or call [Mrs. Lagisquet] until then,” Figueredo said. “Even though she knew I was going over there regularly.”
Two days later, Whitney placed a 24-hour caretaker at Mrs. Lagisquet’s house. The same week, Mrs. Lagisquet lost her ability to make unauthorized phone calls.
“It’s so whacky, it’s got to be something out of a cartoon,” said Tim Okonek, Beverly Okonek’s husband. Neither of them has been allowed to see Mrs. Lagisquet. “It just happened so quickly. How is that legal, to take away all her individual First Amendment rights without her day in court? That’s not America.”
According to several people who have tried to reach her by phone, her incoming calls are now forwarded to Hemness. Wright said he received a call from Hemness informing him he was not allowed to call Mrs. Lagisquet anymore.
On Aug. 13, Lucbernet arrived at Tampa International Airport from Paris. She said Mrs. Lagisquet was fearful and had asked her to come. She was turned away at Mrs. Lagisquet’s door. Hemness said visits must be coordinated, in advance, with Whitney.
Hemness said they had not planned to place a round-the-clock attendant with Mrs. Lagisquet, but they deemed it necessary as “events unfolded and strange things occurred” concerning the behaviors of others. One friend took her out of the home without their knowledge, others had been contacting her with “with some things that cause us concern.”
It’s not uncommon for a person under guardianship to experience significant changes to their ability to see others after they become a ward of the state, particularly as loved ones and guardians may clash over what actions they believe are best for the ward.
“It’s a tragedy how much time is being put into this case because of the various people that are out there — people that are agitating Ms. Lagisquet, people who are trying to involve themselves in the process inappropriately,” said Hemness. “It causes us an awful lot of extra work, and it’s going to cost Ms. Lagisquet an awful lot of extra money.”
Hemness said he and Whitney are just doing the job the court appointed them to do — to keep Mrs. Lagisquet and her property secure. “If we’re not absolutely 100 percent certain that the ward is going to be safe, I’m not going to allow you to have unsupervised contact with her,” he said. “Think of it like a toddler — you would not leave a toddler.”
In the fallout, Mrs. Lagisquet’s world has narrowed. A video and note obtained by the Times suggest she is confused about why she cannot speak to loved ones, or why this is happening to her.
An Aug. 17 court order now states that only Whitney, Hackworth and caretakers can contact Mrs. Lagisquet without obtaining prior permission from Whitney, with the consent of Hackworth. If either denies anyone access to Mrs. Lagisquet, the court must be notified “immediately” and a hearing must be set on the issue.
“When an order’s written that way, I have an obligation to my client to make sure that no one is able to come into her house that isn’t in her best interest,” said Hackworth, Mrs. Lagisquet’s attorney. “If someone’s known her for years, I’ve made good faith efforts to coordinate that contact.”
Moving to a home
If the situation continues to escalate, Hemness said he and the guardian may move Mrs. Lagisquet into an assisted living facility.
“And that would be a tragedy,” he said. “She has plenty of money to stay in her home. She is happy in her home. We would rather she stay in her home. But some of those outside people are doing things that are making some of the care providers very uncomfortable.”
Mrs. Lagisquet has fled to her next-door neighbor and friend Randy Markham’s home at least four times since caretakers were placed at her home, according to Markham — an action that could be perceived as a sign of desperation, or used as evidence of incompetence in a future court hearing.