The Charleston County Probate Court appointed a guardian and a conservator to take care of Virginia Manos in 2004 because of reports that the 89-year-old woman who lived alone couldn't take care of herself and might be exploited.
Over the next four years, until she died in July 2008, the court approved spending $150,000 of her available money on lawyer, guardian, conservator and court fees -- almost one out of every four dollars spent for her care.
Manos' case is not alone. It is among many in which the Probate Court, set up to protect incapacitated elderly people from neglect, abuse or financial exploitation, allows lawyers, guardians and conservators to profit off helpless elderly wards.
Lucia Morfesis does not understand how it all happened.
She is her mother's only child, but they were not close. "I loved my mother deeply," Lucia said, but a barrier existed between them that she could not penetrate despite her efforts.
Her mother, Virginia Manos, lived alone on Folly Beach in a house one block from the ocean. As Manos' health faded in 2003, her daughter did not realize anything was wrong other than the typical pains that inflict an 89-year-old woman.
In early 2004, Folly Beach police learned that she could barely walk without assistance, couldn't maintain her house and showed confusion. They contacted Charleston Elder Support, which then petitioned the County Probate Court to declare her incapacitated. The court appointed a conservator and a guardian, who placed her in an assisted living home.
Morfesis said she would have taken over her mother's care, but she never realized the court might give her that option. "It was never explained to me."
Her mother would live four more years, during which the conservator sold her beach home for more than $700,000 to get money for her care.
When she died in July, 2008, the $700,000 from her house was down to $266,000. More than $150,000 of her money had gone to pay for lawyers, guardians, conservators and court fees.
"We have been crying over this for years. It is horrible," Lucia Morfesis said.
The case of Lee Belle Murray stands out. At a recent hearing, five attorneys debated her future while their fee clocks ticked on. Three attorneys sat on one side of the courtroom, one each to represent Elder Support, the conservator and Lee Belle Murray. Also in the courtroom sat Murray's present and her former guardians, one of whom is a lawyer.
The five charge fees ranging from $75 an hour to $175 an hour. Over the day-long hearing, they could easily rack up combined fees in excess of $5,000 -- most of it billed to Murray's estate.
The hearing was called because Murray's daughter, Ellen, thought the Court overreacted in 2008 when it appointed a guardian for her mother.
Ellen Murray argued that the court had no real reason to remove her mother from her care. And she contended that the court-appointed guardian had unnecessarily taken her mother from her home and placed her in a costly nursing home where the guardian restricted her visits with her mother.
In a June 15 e-mail, the guardian told Ellen Murray, "You may visit once a week in my company for one hour."
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Is System Draining Our Seniors Assets?