Editor’s note: Investigative journalist Diane Dimond, whose weekly syndicated column on crime and justice appears in the Journal, is preparing a book on the nation’s elder guardianship system. It’s a system designed to protect the elderly from the unscrupulous. But as Dimond discovered, it can be dominated by a core group of court-appointed, for-profit professionals who are accused of isolating family members and draining the elders’ estates. New Mexico is no exception.
This is the second installment of a five-part Albuquerque Journal series - Who Guards the Guardians?
When a family dispute over what to do with an elderly parent winds up in a New Mexico court, the lives of all involved can change dramatically.
It begins when a lawyer representing a family member, often a son or daughter, who is seeking the court’s involvement files a petition asking a district judge to appoint a guardian and a conservator to take over the elder person’s affairs.
What many families don’t initially realize is just how much power these court appointees have over the elderly “wards of the court.”
Family members who did not initiate the proceeding said they were shut out of the process and their loved one was almost immediately isolated by court-appointed strangers. These adult children of wards were stunned to learn their parent’s hard-earned estate was used to bankroll the entire process, a cottage industry of for-profit elder care service providers.
Fee after fee
Among the first bills paid for by the incapacitated elder is the hourly fee for those newly appointed to run his or her life. It is routine for a New Mexico attorney associated with this type of case to earn $300 an hour or more, a guardian and conservator about $200 an hour each.
According to lawyers familiar with the system, the elder – frequently pre-diagnosed with some sort of diminished mental capacity – also must pay for his or her own neuropsychological exam by what’s called a qualified health care professional. That routinely costs close to $1,000.
The costs for a court visitor, the court appointee who helps investigate the family dynamic, can run about $2,000 a month. Payments to one court visitor reviewed by the Journal topped more than $14,400. Initial costs for all these professionals add up quickly, and the appointees become inexorably enmeshed in the elder’s care.
Once those for-profit professionals are in place, they communicate with the judge about their findings and ask permission to take certain major actions, such as liquidating the senior’s stocks or moving the ward to a different living arrangement.
In some cases, the elder’s house is sold and the person is moved to a care facility, chosen by the court appointees. If they are allowed to stay in their home, they then must pay the cadre of support personnel the guardian and conservator are allowed to hire: in-home caretakers, personal shoppers, dog walkers, landscapers, pool maintenance companies and messenger or delivery services.
In one case reviewed by the Journal, a daughter of a now-deceased elderly man who became a ward of the court says her father was charged for both a dog walker for his tiny Yorkie and a separate service that picked up the dog’s waste. She says he also paid for pool maintenance for a backyard pool no one used and a messenger service to pick up his prescriptions at a nearby pharmacy that offered free delivery.
Several family members say supervision of the extra personnel is lacking.
“My mother was routinely fed a diet of McDonald’s and Taco Bell,” one woman said about her now-deceased mother. “Where the hundreds of dollars in groceries we paid for went is anyone’s guess.” She also complained that of the dozens of caretakers in and out of her mother’s home, “some fell asleep on the job, items disappeared from the home and some even wore Mom’s clothes. There was no one to complain to because the guardian and the conservator wouldn’t talk to me.”
The conservator handling the estate of a 78-year-old woman who lived on a ranch in Albuquerque’s bosque used her money to install satellite TV after caretakers complained the elderly woman’s television didn’t get enough channels. Conservator records reflect the monthly charge of nearly $90.
Nancy Oriola is the CEO of Decades LLC, an elder care agency that accepts court appointments to act as elder guardians and/or conservators and handled that case. She told the Journal that Decades hires various outside caretaker agencies and admitted that “from time to time, we may encounter a problem with an employee from an agency. But when those problems occur, we try diligently to rectify the issues.”
It is not unusual for in-home care to drain an estate of more than $120,000 a year. One attorney claimed the cost of care for his client’s wealthy parent who had been declared incapacitated topped $600,000 in one calendar year.
“The home care costs were absolutely unconscionable, insane,” according to this Albuquerque lawyer, who is familiar with the process. “The annual cost was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for this woman to stay in her own home,” he said. An example he offered were the supermarket bills – “$400 worth of groceries a week … for a 98-pound lady,” he said. “That’s $1,600 a month!” (Click to Continue)
Full Article & Source:
Cottage industry of guardians, conservators and caretakers can quickly drain estates
Who Guards the Guardians, Part One