SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — If there's such a thing as a typical marriage, Bunny and Claflin Garst's has never been one.
When they were introduced 42 years ago at a Bradenton real estate closing, they didn't think all that much of each other. She had just moved from New York, and wondered what kind of grown man would wear a short-sleeve shirt and a tie. He, in turn, was leery of the female broker in her citified business suit.
But the next time they met, she had on a bikini. "He liked that a lot better," she recalls.
The longtime Manatee County judge, son of a prominent ranching family, and the divorcee with two children kept company for 11 years before tying the knot. Yet even as a married couple, they didn't always sleep under the same roof; she preferred her comfortable beach house to his Spartan buffalo ranch.
But Bunny Garst, now 80, says she cooked, cleaned and cared for her husband through almost 30 years of marriage. She expected to keep doing so when his progressive dementia got out of hand in 2010.
Instead, she maintains, in the space of a morning quarrel he turned against her, refusing afterward to let her help him or even speak to him.
Today, after a bruising legal fight, the state of Florida controls Claflin Garst's fate. He has a personal lawyer and a professional guardian, who also has a lawyer — each earning fees that come out of his assets. Those assets also paid legal costs for two people who competed for the right to take care of him.
Since giving up her own attempt to become her husband's guardian a year ago, Bunny Garst has gone to court to try to block the liquidation of his remaining real estate investments, which are valued in the millions.
She is not allowed to see her 78-year-old husband without permission, and says she has no idea what remains of his life savings — including a safe-deposit box with gold Krugerrands he used to boast about, also reportedly worth millions.
"People think that when your loved one gets dementia, all you have to do is go to court and become his guardian and you take care of him as best you can, and that's it," Bunny says. "But this is a horror story."
As others who get entangled in the guardianship system have found, state laws designed to protect people who can't make their own decisions can trump longtime family ties — especially in families that appear messy or suspect to a judge.
No statistics are available on how many people unwittingly get caught up in the system. But the Garsts' predicament is a cautionary tale, illustrating the importance of having family discussions and executing legal documents before an individual loses the capacity to make clear decisions, said Gerald Hemness, a Brandon lawyer who lectures on guardianship issues.
Families who have not spelled out their wishes earlier can be surprised by their lack of control over their loved one's care as they age.
"Guardianship is inherently a failure," he says. "If you are in a guardianship, things were not properly prepared ahead of time."
Guardianship hearings are closed to the public, and court records are sealed. But Bunny Garst says she keeps every legal document and email she receives — in a binder she can barely lift — and she shared them with the Herald-Tribune, providing rare insight into the largely secret process.
According to the court records in Claflin Garst's case, two people petitioned the circuit court in Manatee to become his legal guardian. One was his wife. The other was his wife's ex-son-in-law, Mark Cussans, a handyman on Claflin's ranch since 2006.
"I didn't think he would have a prayer," Bunny Garst said, referring to Cussans.
But that was before she learned in court that her estranged husband had recently gone to a new lawyer and signed papers that gave Cussans the right to handle his legal, financial and medical affairs.
She suspects the ranch hand "told Claflin I was trying to put him in the nut hatch," Bunny Garst says. "He hates me now."
In an email, Cussans declined to be interviewed for this story. Claflin Garst's professional guardian, Robert M. Elliott, said he never discusses any of the individuals in his charge. The attorneys for Elliott and for Claflin Garst also said they did not want to comment.
Experts in the field say that, while Florida's guardianship system is not perfect, judges generally make the correct decision when the caretaking of an elder is in dispute.
The system is "a vital element in protecting people from exploitation," says Edwin Boyer, a Sarasota lawyer since 1978 and a past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. "It does work; it does get the job done."
But this does not mean it is easy on family members. Contentious cases can resemble an ugly divorce or custody battle that leaves no one happy.
If a judge is unable to trust the motives of either person vying for guardianship, a professional guardian is usually considered the safest option.
Guardianship law is "about the ward," Hemness said, not outside parties.