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Update from editor, Saturday, Nov. 19

Greetings all,

     We've had some really insightful commentary over the past 24 hours. And let me just say how much your responses, and your praise for Guardians for Profit, means to us here at The Times. As Clarence Wigfall noted, newspapers are in trouble, and some in the media have more than earned their bad reputations. But the reporters on this project, Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard, showed what I thought was a conscientious and crusading spirit throughout. They realized that, to write with authority, they had to look at every case that was filed in Southern California over a given period--something no government authority has ever done. Once they did that, and uncovered a startingly high number of abuses, their primary motivation became the plight of the elderly here in California.

     I agree with Sharon Denney that, while licensing professional conservators would be a beneficial step, licensing alone will not protect aged adults who can no longer care for themselves. I believe some combination of education, licensing, auditing and investigation is needed. And I believe the practice of granting emergency conservatorships at ex-parte hearings, without the presence of the prospective conservatee and without a lawyer having been appointed for the prosepctive conservatee, must be stopped immediately. The taking away of civil liberties in this fashion, I believe, is shocking and almost unimagineable.

     Colleen Keith, in her post, appropriately emphasizes the need to police the probate courts. There are many, many honest and hard-working judges on the probate bench. A vast majority of judges, I would even venture to say, probably fall into that category. But they are extremely over-worked and they lack the staff necessary to scrutinize conservators' work and investigate those who are ripping off their clients. There are, unfortunately, some judges who need themselves to be scrutinized and investigated, and the California Supreme Court needs to think about a more vigorous way to do this, particularly with regard to conservatorships in the probate courts, which typically do not result in appeals and thus do not enable the appellate courts to serve as a check on poor performance by judges at the trial court level.

     Bruce Swanson notes that he does not believe requiring conservators to have college degrees would be beneficial. Conservators do not now need to have any formal education--in fact, the only requirements are the lack of a felony record and a $385 fee. I do think the educational requirements recently developed by the state Judicial Council, which go into effect next year, will be better than nothing. But, as Mr. Swanson notes, the failings of conservators are moral failings, not educational ones. If you think of it, there's something oxymoronic about the term "professional conservator"--and this is not to knock the many, many honest and hard-working profeesional conservators now caring for the elderly in California. But the profession presents a real challenge for regulators, particularly because the people being conserved often cannot speak up vigorously for their own rights. The nest eggs that the elderly have spent a lifetime accumulating all too often become honey pots for professional conservators. We wrote about one conservator who was managing a $560,000 estate and spending it at a rate of $84,000 a year, over the ward's objections.  The conservator was essentially betting that the ward wouldn't live longer than five or six more years. If she did, she'd be broke.

       Keep those posts coming. We'll chat again tomorrow. Vernon Loeb      

   

Comments

Kristina Cahill

Vernon

I agree with you that education and licensing will not solve the problem. I think one change will make a huge difference...and that is NOT ALLOWING conservators to charge their wards for their own lawyer fees. If this were stopped, and a ward wanted to let go of a particular conservator then the conservator would have to spend their own money do keep the case. I think a change here would make a huge difference. As it is now the conservatee can be billed for everything...even the lawyer that is fighting against them!

Robert Mann

My close friend J had been in coma/persistent vegetative state for 3 months following a catastrophic automobile accident in Central New York State. I had travelled across the country from California to be with her, originally expecting to attend her memorial servive. As she began to recover, she and I -- who had been sweethearts years before -- began to discusss our future together. Not knowing whether she would be permanently hospitalized or able to live independently, I nevertheless told her that I would never leave her. At this point, the professional guardian who had taken charge of J's life (and modest assets) ordered me to be banned from visiting J and made plans to place her in a group home. I complained to the Head Trauma Center where J was being treated, to the New York Department of Health, and to the Judge who had created the guardianship on the grounds that the guardian was placing a great emotional strain on J. Just as she was returning to life, her one friend in the world was arbitrarily taken from her. The Trauma Center said they must obey the orders of a legal guardian. The state and the judge sent examiners to "talk" to J, who could barely speak. The examiners reported that J thought her guardian's action was in her best interest. A lawyer told me I could probably get the right to visit J for about $10,000 in court costs but had no standing to challenge the guardianship. When I called the ACLU and described the situation, I was told they did "not handle that kind of case."

I had notes smuggled into J by my elderly landlady and managed through a ruse to talk with J on the phone and give her encouragement.

Finally, J's octagenarian father, who was undergoing home dialysis and had been badly injured in the accident, managed to travel some distance in Winter conditions to a hearing. He had the legal standing to get the guardianship revoked. I don't know what his court costs were.

Throughout this period the guardian slandered me to staff at the center, implying inappropriate conduct on my part. This was stoutly denied by the nurding staff which had observed me over several seeks. She told J's cousins that I was "a fortune hunter from California" who had never really been a close friend to J in the past, in spite of evidence I produced to the contrary.

At one point the guardian visited J in the center and told her that she had learned "bad things" about me, including the fact thta I "had been married in California". J., in her wheelchair at that point, yelled, charged the guardian, and literally chased her out of the building.


Robert Mann

POST SCRIPT

I was just discussing this series of articles and the reader posts with J.

This brought to mind a conversation I had with the judge on the day he created the guardianship. I came to the court early, before the hearing. His bailiff told him I was there, and I and was invited to meet him in his chambers.

I told him I could see J improving week by week and thought she might well reach the point where she would want to end the guardianship. He assured me that the guardianship could be made less restrictive and even eliminated if and when J recovered sufficiently to clearly state her own wishes.

The judge seemed to be a good man, and I am sure he was sincere in what he said. However I do not think he considered the "catch 22" in all of these conservator/guardian cases -- namely that the guardian would be able to use J's own resources to fight any change in the guardianship and that J would not be able to use her own resources to seek a change.

The guardian and her mother, who was a cousin of J's elderly mother, were furious when the judge observed that "the gentleman from California" had expressed some concerns about the guardianship.

Vern Jahnke

My local Church of the Brethren in LaVerne, CA may be interested in establishing a non-profit "center for ethical, competent, and caring guardianships for the elderly". Given our association with the University of LaVerne and Hillcrest Homes for the Elderly in LaVerne, as well as a great pool of recently retired professionals from various fields we have substantial resources to do good by our older seniors. Can you suggest how we might go about establishing such a ministry?

Julia Huntsman

This is not exactly on point about guardianships, however, I think closely related is the topic of the public administrator's handling of cases. In my personal experience, I dealt with the Los Angeles County Public Administrator's office for a family member whose "friend" filed a new will after her death claiming a common-law marriage with her (not legal in California) with the family member which was accepted by the County. The Public Administrator's supervision of estates is theoretically for people who leave no wills, which this lady did but I only had copies, not the original, of her will. My attorney had to advise the County's attorneys on issues of the probate code with which they did not seem familiar, but the estate was charged for the County's services over and over. Among other issues, certain items were not found in the County's storage, including a couch which was 8' long because their storage boxes are 7' long. The County's personnel knew nothing about this when I asked. It was extremely frustrating to says the least. Although the estate is now closed for quite some time, I still wonder about the propriety of some of their handling of that estate.

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