Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Roscommon guardianship case probed by Michigan State Police

By Mardi Link

Caregiver Pauline Richards, Kay McGinnis and McGinnis’ sister, Peggy Olsen, on July 20 in McGinnis’s room at The Brook, an assisted living facility in Roscommon. The women were engaged in an impromptu strategy session in advance of an upcoming hearing where guardianship for McGinnis is expected to be decided by a judge.
Record-Eagle/Mardi Link

ROSCOMMON — In March 2016, when Kay McGinnis, 82, suffered a life-threatening stroke and was hospitalized, her close-knit family quickly rallied.

McGinnis’ sisters, Peggy Olsen, 87, and Loreli Haddad, 83, encouraged her to work hard in speech and physical therapy sessions and gave her moral support.

McGinnis’ son and daughter both lived out of state, and McGinnis’ longtime partner, John Kutz, agreed to be named as a court-appointed guardian and conservator.

Kutz, 69, did a good job of handling McGinnis’ finances, court documents show, visiting her at Munson Hospital in Grayling and keeping a close eye on her progress at Grayling Nursing and Rehab.

“We had no complaints with John,” Haddad said. “He was really good to her.”

It took several months, but Kutz’s attentiveness, and encouragement from family, paid off.

McGinnis moved back into her Stuckey Avenue home near Higgins Lake, with the brick fireplace and the cheery yellow kitchen. Her health improved, she began preparing meals and handling household chores, with Kutz continuing to manage her finances.

By 2018, McGinnis accomplished something Michigan probate court records, reviewed by Record-Eagle reporters in more than a dozen counties, show that many with court-appointed oversight do not achieve: She maintained her autonomy.

“It was good, it was my life,” McGinnis recalled recently, during an emotion-filled interview at the Brook of Roscommon, the assisted living facility where McGinnis is currently staying.

That good life was also temporary.

Because, just as McGinnis was regaining some of the abilities she had lost with the stroke, Kutz was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died in 2019, and McGinnis was not only grief-stricken, her daily life was thrown into disarray.

A series of court-appointed successor guardians and conservators followed Kutz’s death, upending McGinnis’ finances, her living arrangements, the fate of her household possessions and even the location of Kutz’s ashes following his cremation.

“In the last three years, Kay has lost her life insurance policy, she’s lost her disability coverage, they sold her house and we don’t even know how much of the money is left,” Olsen said.

Jessica Starlin-Ronin, of Cadillac, succeeded Kutz, court records show, but was permitted to resign after a family friend and one of McGinnis’ caregivers, Mary “Minnie” Lovely, filed a petition with the court, stating a personal TCF Bank savings account wasn’t listed in McGinnis’ assets.

Starlin-Ronin did not return a call seeking comment.

Lovely, of Grayling, succeeded Starlin-Ronin, court records show, and in February was arraigned in 82nd District Court, on one count of embezzlement of more than $1,000 and less than $20,000 from a vulnerable adult.

Lovely’s arraignment followed a Michigan State Police investigation into accusations that Lovely spent nearly $9,000 of McGinnis’ money on a Tracfone and lottery tickets, and made large withdrawals from McGinnis’ bank account at an ATM located inside an unnamed casino.

Calls to a cell phone number listed for Lovely in court documents was not returned. An 82nd District Court official said Lovely missed a March 2 court hearing, triggering issuance of a failure-to-appear bench warrant.

Lovely also is accused in court records of not making McGinnis’ mortgage payments, which prompted foreclosure proceedings by TCF Bank, for not paying premiums on a life insurance policy which TransAmerica Inc. later canceled, and of not re-securing $900 a month in disability benefits, which temporarily ceased when McGinnis was undergoing Medicaid-covered rehab at a nursing home.

Four months after Kutz died, the probate court sent Lovely a deficiency notice, stating she did not file the required annual accounting of McGinnis’ assets.

Days later, a judge appointed a guardian ad litem to visit McGinnis and check on her welfare.

“Kay said she has had no contact with her current guardian and conservator Mary Lovely, for several months,” David Vogel wrote in a Nov. 19, 2021, GAL report. “Kay has not received any money for food or help from Mary Lovely and does not know if her bills are being paid.”

State police documents state that, during this time, McGinnis was paying for groceries with nickels and dimes from a change jar.

MSP Sgt. Ashley Miller said she could not comment on specific cases, but said officers do seek all financial documents when investigating vulnerable adult embezzlement cases, whether these are provided voluntarily or require a search warrant.

“These cases are disheartening and I do think the community feels for them,” Miller said of victims like McGinnis. “Be vigilant, stay in communication with the elderly, if you feel that something is suspicious, definitely contact the authorities.”

Sheila Englehardt, of St. Helen, has since replaced Lovely as McGinnis’ guardian/conservator, and her court filings show she helped uncover Lovely’s questionable spending.

But McGinnis and her sisters have questions for Englehardt, who they say hasn’t returned their phone calls or provided to them an accounting of McGinnis’ assets.

In March, Englehardt sought and received court permission to sell McGinnis’ Stuckey Avenue home for $194,900, to end foreclosure proceedings and protect the equity McGinnis had in the home. McGinnis’ family estimates this was between $45,000 and $55,000 — after a $113,000 mortgage was paid off and taxes, utility bills, closing costs and other fees were settled.

Calls to Englehardt seeking comment went unanswered.

A recording stated her voice mailbox was full and couldn’t receive messages.

Haddad in June filed a petition to have Englehardt removed and asked the court to either terminate the appointment altogether or name McGinnis as her own guardian and conservator.

“She’s been taken advantage of by monetary issues — stolen & unwisely spent!” Haddad said, in a June 30 handwritten court filing. “Loss of life insurance, furniture, mail & many other issues!”

A hearing on the petition is scheduled Aug. 8 in Roscommon Probate Court.

All three sisters say they plan to attend, although question whether any of them, including McGinnis who is still considered a ward of the court, will be provided with legal representation.

“Doesn’t the state, or the county, or somebody at the court have responsibility for this?” Olsen asked.

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is more complex.

In Michigan, elected probate court judges appoint guardians and conservators to handle medical, housing and financial decisions for people who, a judge has decided, can no longer make these decisions for themselves.

Judges rely on staff with social service organizations, such as Adult Protective Services and Community Mental Health, to make recommendations, both on who needs a guardian or conservator, and on who should be appointed to the job.

Michigan probate courts are only responsible for monitoring whether guardians and conservators file financial and other documents on time and that these documents are sent to “interested parties” such as McGinnis’ sisters.

Family and friends can serve as guardians and conservators, as can professionals, although the pay is often negligible for all but those who serve the wealthy.

For Medicaid clients who live in an AFC home or a nursing home, or for those living at home on Social Security, court-appointed guardians and conservators are supposed to be paid a flat fee between $83 and $95 a month.

Yet in dozens of interviews conducted over the past year, guardians and conservators, and the social workers and case managers who work alongside them, say they often don’t bill, because those they are appointed to serve simply cannot afford to pay.

For example, Lee Storch of Guardian Services of Northwest Michigan in Traverse City — who has no role in the Roscommon case — said her firm provides the same level of service whether clients can pay or not.

“Nine times out of 10, for the clients who can’t pay, we’re their last stop,” Storch said. “If not for us, who would be helping them? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if there is an answer.”

An overview of 15,000 guardianship cases compiled by the Michigan Guardianship Association prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, shows member guardians charged no fee for their services in 38 percent of cases, charged the monthly flat fee in 59 percent of cases and charged by the hour in just 3 percent of cases.

In 2017, legislative records show leaders with the state Department of Health and Human Services first began experimenting with a plan to cut the flat monthly fee by a few dollars and funnel the aggregate into an account in the state’s 2018/2019 FY budget, to reimburse county governments for up to 50 percent of what they were paying guardians.

The problem with this plan is most counties in Michigan do not fund public guardianship offices and do not pay guardians or conservators out of their county budget.

Subsequent efforts by DHHS to revive this concept, seemingly to entice more counties to open public guardian offices, have either failed or not made it into the approved annual state budget, records show.

Elected officials have studied ways to reform state guardianship laws since at least the mid-1990s, with little success.

Whether legislation proposed after discussion and study by Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Elder Abuse Task Force will pass into law, and, if passed, whether it will actually do more to protect the rights and assets of people like McGinnis, remains to be seen.

Two of the task force’s many initiatives have so far been accomplished: Banks must now report fraud of vulnerable adults when they become aware of it and there’s a new form for law enforcement to use when reporting that fraud.

The fate of the other initiatives — including certification of guardians and conservators – is tied to proposed legislation discussed earlier this summer during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Storch said increased burdens on professional guardians with no funding attached, could put some companies out of business.

Olsen, a straight-talker and the oldest of McGinnis’ two sisters, said she is not optimistic the system can be repaired.

“It can be someone you trusted, but without someone checking on them, these court appointments are like a license to steal,” Olsen said. “Don’t think this won’t affect you. If you’re old, trying not to become a ward of the court is almost an impossibility in this state.”

For now, McGinnis is safe and well-cared-for at the Brook, her sisters said, where staff have helped move her belongings out of an expensive storage unit and into a secure garage and have made sure her medications are up to date.

The day-to-day financial issues continue, however.

“Kay’s credit is shot so she can’t even get cable,” Haddad said. “Kay likes to watch sports, the Tigers, the Lions, but all she can get now is one cooking show.”

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