Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Escape was only option for an old soldier trapped in guardian system
APTOS, Calif. — Guadalupe Olvera sits in his tall green chair, blowing a familiar tune on his harmonica as a baseball game plays on his television. The harmony echoes off the walls of his daughter’s 1960s-era home, filling the air with an enticing melody.
Although slowed by age at 95, the World War II veteran regularly attends Veterans of Foreign Wars barbecues in Aptos, where he easily remembers the names and family details of those he meets. Life in the lush green hills near Santa Cruz is peaceful for Olvera and his family.
That wasn’t the case a few years ago, when he was isolated and alone, a prisoner in his Henderson home — a ward of Clark County, surrounded by people he didn’t know who were supposed to protect him, but who ended up with more than $420,000 of his money, most of his estate.
No longer a ward of any state, he’s settled in the home of the daughter who had to “kidnap” him when all else failed.
A FATEFUL CHOICE
Olvera and his wife, Carmela, moved from California to Henderson to retire in 2002. They enjoyed warm weather and quickly became active members of their new Sun City Anthem community. Life was serene for the Olveras.
In 2007, Carmela took a step that would later prove costly. At a financial planner’s behest, she became her husband’s guardian.
The couple’s daughter, Rebecca Schultz, said Carmela already handled the couples’ finances, so Guadalupe never questioned the move.
But after Camela’s sudden death in fall 2009, he needed a new guardian. Schultz wasn’t an option because state law says a guardian must live in Nevada.
“I didn’t understand it,” Schultz said of the guardianship system. “I knew nothing about what that term meant, legally.”
Schultz called the office of the guardianship commissioner, who at any one time supervises 8,500 such cases for Clark County Family Court.
“I thought these people were going to help me,” Schultz said.
A court clerk told her she needed to see Jared Shafer, who for 24 years handled estate administration and guardianships as Clark County public administrator before starting Professional Fiduciary Services of Nevada, a guardianship company for hire, in 2003.
Shafer told Schultz he would act as a temporary guardian until conservatorship could be transferred to California, which should have taken about six months. She assumed the transfer would go quickly with such an experienced guardian involved.
In a few months she realized she was wrong.
Rather than making an easy move to California, Olvera was stuck in Nevada while his family was forced to watch him lose everything.
“My father had a 3,000-square-foot house with a huge master bedroom and two guest bedrooms and they (his court-appointed guardians) wouldn’t let us stay there when we first visited,” Schultz said. Later visits were limited to a maximum of four days.
“That’s the first sign I saw that ‘OK, something’s wrong,’ ” she said.
A month after he was granted temporary guardianship, Shafer petitioned the court to make it permanent — a legal move that tethered Olvera and his money to Nevada.
Schultz and her father became increasingly suspicious of Shafer and the people he assigned to work with Olvera — people such as Shafer’s case manager, Patience Bristol, and his bookkeeper, Amy Deittrick.
Deittrick runs AViD Business Services, a bookkeeping company with ties to Shafer.
In February 2010, just three months after Shafer became guardian, Olvera’s Wells Fargo trust was billed $39,297.
More than $8,700 went to Bristol. AViD received $5,760 for charges ranging from $40 to $125 to pay a bill.
Shafer’s then-attorney, Elyse Tyrell, was paid $5,919.
Shafer’s bill alone was $15,000.
Only $3,080 went to KeepYou Company, a health care provider that took care of Olvera in his home.
A representative of the now-defunct company said it had no business relationship with Shafer beyond caring for Olvera.
Neither Shafer nor Deittrick responded to requests for comment for this article. Bristol could not be reached for comment, for good reason. After leaving Shafer’s office to start her own business she was convicted of stealing at least $200,000 from her wards and is now serving a prison term.
Still mourning the death of his wife, Olvera began to change, Schultz said. Once a cheerful joker, he became withdrawn — a shell of his former self, she said.
“He wasn’t happy being there with somebody that wasn’t his family,” Schultz said. “He had no friends there. No relatives. He was fearful.”
Watching costs mount and fearing her father was being exploited, she tried to have Shafer removed as guardian, hoping to eventually move Olvera to California.
That set in motion a long, costly legal battle that resulted in a warrant for her arrest.
HARD TO FIGHT
Schultz learned quickly that Nevada law and Family Court favor the guardian. She couldn’t even go to court unless a Nevada resident would act as a co-petitioner. A friend from Las Vegas agreed to help, and they hired local attorney Brian Boggess.
Shafer responded by filing court papers claiming Schultz was an estranged daughter who had no contact with her parents after they left California, and thus should not be allowed to care for her father.
“They said that I had no relationship at all with my parents, which I found kind of strange since a year and a half before my mom’s death I had been there taking care of her when she broke her hip,” Schultz said. “I’m the one who taught my mother, at her late age, how to use a computer.”
Jon Norheim is an attorney appointed by the Clark County Commission to serve as guardianship commissioner. His clerk was the one who suggested Shafer to Schultz.
Although not a judge, Norheim’s decisions carry the weight of one. His ruling can be appealed to higher courts, but seldom are because of the cost. Attorneys familiar with the process say an appeal to District Court and the state Supreme Court would run about $50,000, too much for most estates to bear.
In response to Shafer’s claims, Schultz tried to show her relationship with her parents to the court. She provided a stack of handwritten letters that spoke of recent visits and dozens of emails between her and her mother.
Norheim wasn’t moved. He observed that Olvera enjoyed having Shafer as his guardian, and didn’t want to move to California.
But that’s not what the old soldier said.
In the one time he was allowed to speak in court, Olvera said, “I would like to live in California. I don’t need that man. I don’t need Jared.”
Boggess, meanwhile, argued that Shafer was improperly draining Olvera’s estate with excessive charges, and challenged the legality of Shafer’s appointment as guardian, citing state and federal laws that say guardians for military veterans are limited to having only five wards at any one time. Shafer had dozens of wards at the time of his appointment.
The same law also limits how much guardians can charge wards to 5 percent of the ward’s annual income. Boggess argued that Shafer’s billings far exceeded that limit.
Again, Norheim was unmoved. According to a hearing transcript, he called the law regarding veterans “nice and clear,” but not enough to justify “a major upsetting of the apple cart” for Shafer and other private guardians.
“All these private guardians have more than five wards,” Norheim said in court. “You couldn’t stay in business if you only had a couple of wards.”
Olvera would stay Shafer’s ward in Nevada, Norheim ruled later.
Boggess said he thought Norheim was more concerned about the effect on Shafer’s business than the law’s aim of assuring proper attention to the needs of veterans.
“That should be the last conceivable thing that a judge or commissioner thinks about — how it will upset somebody else’s business,” Boggess said.
In a recent interview, Norheim told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that statutes regarding veterans “could be read harmoniously, and not in conflict.”
And Olvera was inconsistent about wanting to return to California, he said.
“They totally ignored him,” Schultz said. “In my opinion, it’s a kangaroo court, at least concerning Shafer’s cases. Your attorneys can spend an enormous amount of time researching and filing and writing … and you don’t get anywhere.”
Days after the hearing, Olvera and his daughter took what they saw as their only option.
“The only way to solve the problem was to get my dad out of there,” Schultz said.
Olvera packed a few belongings and they drove to her home in Aptos.
“He left of his own volition,” Schultz said. “He wanted to go. He was afraid.”
Boggess said he didn’t tell Schultz to run, but he understands why she did.
“If I was in Becky’s shoes, and I could see that I wasn’t going to get a fair shake, I’m not sure I would have made a different choice,” Boggess said.
In subsequent Guardian Court hearings, Shafer’s lawyers accused Schultz of kidnapping her father.
No such charges were ever filed, but Norheim did issue a bench warrant for Schultz’s arrest after she and her father ignored his order to return for a court appearance.
“This was considered a kidnapping because he’s incapacitated. And (Schultz) took him in violation of Nevada law, and we can’t allow that to happen,” Norheim recently told the Review-Journal. “There has to be enforcement of the statutes.”
FOLLOWING THE DOLLARS
Although Olvera made it out of Nevada, his money did not. For years after Schultz and Olvera fled to California, Shafer continued an expensive court fight to maintain his status as the old soldier’s guardian.
Olvera paid for all of it — about $240,000 in legal costs over five years, all billed to the estate Shafer still controlled.
More than $130,000 of the charges went to lawyers representing Bristol and Shafer, Solomon Dwiggins and Freer, Clark & Trevithick in Henderson, and the Grunksy Law Firm in California.
Shafer himself charged $250 per hour to send emails or make phone calls related to the case. Often he and his lawyers would discuss matters over the telephone, with each billing Olvera’s account separately for their time, according to invoices obtained by the Review-Journal.
Clark County District Judge Charles Hoskin, who supervises the guardianship program, said he doesn’t see a problem with Shafer’s rates or billing practices.
“Given his background and experience, I think that’s a reasonable number,” Hoskin told the Review-Journal.
Lawyers fighting Shafer on Olvera’s behalf also were paid from his estate, but their bills amounted to just about $60,000.
All told, over about 3½ years Olvera’s estate had been tapped for at least $420,000, Boggess said in a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed last fall in Las Vegas.
In the lawsuit, Boggess accuses Shafer of inflating bills, submitting false charges and embezzlement.
“They were robbing me of my money,” Olvera said.
In Nevada, guardians are allowed to use their ward’s estate to pay for services and other fees, including attorney fees. But many involved in the guardianship world warn that the practice is easily abused by those in power.
“When people aren’t using their own money to fight the war, the disincentives aren’t as present,” said David Hardy, chief judge of District Court in Washoe County and an advocate for reforming the guardianship system. “Those numbers add up very, very quickly.”
In late 2012 the legal case was transferred to a Superior Court in California, where on Aug. 21, 2013, a judge terminated Olvera’s guardianship, restoring his ability to manage his own affairs. Shafer withdrew his accusations of kidnapping, and the bench warrant for Schultz was dismissed.
The judge in California did not respond to interview requests, but in court he cited Olvera’s improved condition thanks partly to being home with family.
“I never felt that my father needed a guardian,” Schultz said. “He just needed someone to assist him for his disabilities.”
Olvera still struggles with a bum knee, a sore shoulder and back, and permanent frostbite damage from his wartime service. But those injuries don’t slow him as much as they used to, thanks in part to electric chair lifts the Veterans Administration installed in Schultz’s two-story house. The VA also gave him a motorized scooter.
When the old soldier was a ward in Nevada, no one bothered to ask the VA to help improve his quality of life, Schultz said.
“None of my dad’s benefits were really utilized, because Shafer really didn’t care,” Schultz said. “I believe that if I’d left him there that he would be dead now.
“He’s healthier, heavier and happier than when he was down there,” Schultz said. “He’s in his comfort zone.”
Olvera and his son-in-law seldom miss a VFW post meeting, barbecue or parade. That VA-provided scooter gets good use.
No longer surrounded by strangers and left with no say over his own life, Olvera has no complaints.
Family and friends “treat me real fine,” he said. “They feed me anything I want … They know what I like.”
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Escape was only option for an old soldier trapped in guardian system