Ninety-one-year-old Sophie Paulos spent three months and more than $30,000 proving to court officials that she was competent enough to run her own life.
Two of her daughters had told a local judge that they suspected Paulos was being financially exploited by family members. They said they were worried about her health. They questioned whether she was mentally sound.
By the time the three-month ordeal was over, Paulos says, she had paid $30,000 for court-appointed lawyers she never wanted and another $70,000 on related legal expenses.
“I was humiliated,” said Paulos, who is frustrated with court officials who she says drove up the bills. “I had to pay for this and they don’t care.”
Now Paulos’ son-in-law — former Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs — is holding her case out as an example of how the guardianship system needs reform.
Since Paulos’ case was settled in October, Suehs has been connecting with legislators and guardianship advocates who say people are unfairly dragged through the courts and forced to spend thousands of dollars to protect their independence. Now they’re pushing for changes that would require speedier hearings and force courts to prove they need to intervene before launching full investigations. The proposals have drawn support from AARP and Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth.
But lawyers and judges say the proposed changes would leave people more vulnerable and throw unnecessary roadblocks into the process.
Adult guardianship cases are essentially lawsuits designed to ensure vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities are not abused, neglected or exploited. A probate court must determine whether people are competent enough to keep themselves safe and healthy. If a judge deems they are not, he can appoint a guardian to make medical, financial and other decisions for them.
Between September 2011 and August 2012, more than 4,500 adult guardianship petitions were filed in probate courts across the state. Of those, 206 were filed in Travis County.
Those involved in the process say people often need guardians for reasons such as dementia or failing health. But sometimes people who need help don’t realize it or can’t recognize the signs of trouble, said Travis County Probate Court Judge Guy Herman. They don’t see that they are being scammed by strangers or giving away all their money.
Consequently, they balk at the the idea of needing a guardian, Herman said.
“Let’s face it, when there is a guardianship, somebody’s losing some rights,” he said. “It’s a loss of freedom and they’re well aware of it.”
Paulos certainly was.
“I am very hurt that they put this through the court,” she said. “I am not incompetent.”
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Woman's Costly Court Battle Prompts Call for Reform of Guardianship System