The thought of having a conservator appointed for a parent or relative - even a friend or neighbor - is something we all seem to loath. It has all sorts of negative connotations, including the fact that a conserved individual will be paraded through the probate courts with psychiatric and medical evaluations open for all to see. But, most of all, it's the loss of dignity that results when the state declares an individual incapable - and takes away his or her right to vote, or marry, or divorce, or write a check, or pay a bill, or make any other meaningful decisions. It's a position that no one wants to come to in this life.
But, despite all the negative aspects of being conserved, there are times when the appointment of a conservator is actually a good thing. Consider the case of Jane Wiederhold, a Barkhamstead, Connecticut, widow who was left an estate worth roughly $12 million by her husband, John Wiederhold. The Wiederholds had no children and the closest relatives lived out of state. At the time of her husband's death in January of 1998, Jane Wiederhold showed signs of dementia and the inability to manage her finances. A friend of the family reportedly stated to the police that she was unable to write a check to pay for her husband's funeral and she couldn't remember how to spell her name.
Prior to his death, John Wiederhold had an attorney, Peter K. Sivaslian, from Torrington, Connecticut. Immediately after John Wiederhold's death, Attorney Sivaslian started settling John Wiederhold's estate. He also began to assist Jane Wiederhold with her personal finances. Within three months after her husband's death, it is alleged that Attorney Sivaslian started purchasing bearer bonds and stock from the money in the Wiederholds' accounts, the bulk of which were later traced into accounts held by Sivaslian and his wife, Lillian Sivaslian, according to a warrant served on Attorney Sivaslian by Connecticut state police. The warrant charged Attorney Sivalslian with two counts of first-degree larceny and two counts of second-degree larceny. It is alleged that Attorney Sivaslian stole as much as $4.8 million from Jane Wiederhold over several years, although the actual loss is somewhat less because some of the stocks and bonds have been recovered. He also charged a fee of $2,000 a month to handle Jane Wiederhold's financial affairs, and he paid himself $200,000 to settle John Wiederhold's estate.
The situtation didn't come to light until three years after her husband's death, when Jane Wiederhold told her nephew that Attorney Sivaslian had not provided any accountings of her finances and she suspected that half her money was gone. The nephew said he would look into it.
Despite the concern of friends and the funeral home director, no one seemed to do anything to protect Mrs. Wiederhold or her money until the nephew got involved. "No one suspected an attorney would commit any wrongdoing, her relatives, friends and home assistants reported to police," according to an article published by the Register Citizan. Apparently, a medical examiner had recommended in 2001 that Mrs. Wiederhold be placed in conservatorship, but Attorney Sivaslian delayed filing the application until 2002 - more than five years after her husband's death.
This is a case where everyone in contact with Mrs. Wiederhold may have wondered what was going on, but no one felt they had the right to inquire - at least not until the nephew got involved.
That wouldn't have been the case if a conservatorship application had been filed with the probate court as soon as Mrs. Wiederhold lost her husband. That's when Mrs. Wiederhold was most vulnerable and in need of supervision with adequate checks and balances in place to insure that her best interests were taken care of. A conservatorship proceeding would have given her that support system. It would have appointed someone to take care of her personal and financial needs. It would have required that an initial inventory of her assets be prepared and filed with the court. It would have also required that an accounting of her finances be filed every three years - more often if requested by the probate court judge.
While we all loath the thought of a loved one being conserved, it's important to recognize that the probate court system in every state is designed to protect vulnerable individuals who can no longer care for themselves. Yes, there are alternatives that are available if the necessary steps are taken at the appropriate times. But, once the signs of dementia or other debilitating conditions become apparent, then the best option is to seek the protection of the probate courts. The Jane Wiederhold story is a tragic example of what could happen if you don't.
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Sometimes a Conservator can be a Good Thing!