Just two years ago, 80-year-old Jewell Tinnon was living comfortably in the Edgehill house she and her late husband had bought and paid for years earlier.
Tucked away in the home on a cul-de-sac off 13th Avenue South were a life’s worth of possessions, her prized Sunday church clothes and her diamond rings. Parked outside was her 1995 low-mileage Pontiac.
But all that was before a petition was filed, without her knowledge, in Davidson County Probate Court to protect and conserve her life, health and assets.
Today, Tinnon, now 82, lives in a one-bedroom public housing unit watching a television donated by a friend. There is little furniture. Her house, her car, her jewelry and all her possessions are gone, sold off at auction. A large chunk of the proceeds — $36,000 in fees and expenses — was used to pay the lawyers who handled the process.
Tinnon’s plight, a Tennessean review has shown, is not unique. For Tinnon and others, records show, conservatorship, a court process intended to protect those judged no longer able to care for themselves, has proved to be a path in the opposite direction.
Stripped of the right to make even the most basic decisions about their life, health or finances, some of those placed in conservatorship have watched their life’s savings — everything from their homes to their clothes — swallowed up by legal and other fees.
The situation has drawn the attention of national elderly and legal organizations fighting guardianship and conservatorship abuse and sparked an ongoing effort to change states’ laws to provide additional safeguards.
Some who claim their conservatorships were mishandled are fighting back.
After a woman who was trying to get out of a conservatorship complained about how her case was handled, the Nashville judge who handles such cases instituted new procedures in his courtroom.
And Tinnon? After obtaining additional medical exams to prove her mental capacity, she has filed a lawsuit seeking $1.6 million in damages from her former attorney and the organization that had all her possessions auctioned off.
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Conservatorship is Meant to Protect, but in Tennessee, it Sometimes Destroys