BY DIANE DIMOND
I wrote about the plight of 94-year-old Betty Winstanley, who resides at the Masonic Village retirement home in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. She doesn’t want to live there anymore. Now that her husband of 72 years is gone, she longs to move to a care home closer to her two children in Maryland. But the state of Pennsylvania won’t let her leave.
To the state, Betty is case number 1201, just another old person the court has declared “totally incapacitated.” Once someone is labeled as such, they’re given a court-appointed guardian who literally takes over their life. The guardian decides all the ward’s finances, who can visit and for how long, if and when they can leave the home — everything.
This is widow Winstanley’s lot in life now. Yet when you talk to Betty, she is still charming, articulate and highly intelligent, simply looking for a less lonely life during her last years.
I had no idea about the enormity of the nation’s problems with elder guardianship, or how many individuals and organizations are fighting to change the now-bastardized set of laws that can turn an elder’s life into a nightmare.
The aging baby-boom generation has probably already experienced this problem with their own parents. Be careful — you could be the next one to get caught up in this awful system.
Reader Marcia Southwick wrote to tell me about Boomers Against Elder Abuse, a New Mexico organization fighting against abusive court-ordered guardianships.
“There is plenty of it going on in New Mexico but records are sealed here, and families gag ordered and made to sign no-sue agreements once the guardianship/conservatorship is over,” she wrote. The group’s Facebook page lists nearly 350 elder guardianship horror stories from just about every state.
From Austin, Texas, Kelley Smoot Garrett also wrote about New Mexico’s system and the arrogance displayed by the court. “In New Mexico’s Second Judicial District Court,” she said, “The judges … ALWAYS favor their court appointees and never listen to the families or the elderly because they are too busy allowing the ‘incapacitated’ person’s property to be sold off — frequently without the appropriate court order in place — for pennies on the dollar.”
There is no way for me to confirm judicial misconduct in sealed cases, but the sheer volume of complaints Is staggering. They highlight citizens’ attitudes about the legal system taking laws designed to help the elderly and twisting them to ensure continued employment for judges, lawyers, court-appointed guardians, social workers and those who own or staff elder care homes. And it is, conveniently, paid for out of the elders’ estates.
“My mother has been shanghaied into a nursing home, drugged, assets disbursed,” a woman named Frania wrote from Baltimore, Maryland. “The guardian of (her) property is like God. And the judge is cocky, completely confident, arrogant … does exactly what she wants knowing nothing will happen to her.”
It doesn’t matter if the elderly person has a will or living trust — it can be automatically overridden by the state. Once someone approaches the court for assistance with an elderly person — say, a warring sibling or nosy neighbor — they are in the clutches of this dysfunctional system.
Andy Skupaka wrote to say that he has experienced this. “For profit guardian/ conservatorship is now a big business with massive power. The elderly are being denied their civil rights and due process,” he said.
“Their estates and legacies are being looted. … Family members are slandered, libeled, vilified and driven into bankruptcy while trying to save their loved ones from this exploitation.”
Some report they were tricked by unscrupulous lawyers. Darryl Steiner, a decorated and now-retired U.S. Army major wrote from Clearwater, Florida. He said that he went to his lawyer for financial advice and suddenly found himself in a plenary guardianship; now he has no control over his money for his son’s education. “I do have a good monthly retirement income that disappears as soon as it comes in,” he said. “I am desperately seeking help.”
Several groups nationwide are working to change this awful system. Among them, the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, and the Catherine Falk Organization. Catherine, daughter of actor Peter Falk of the “Columbo” TV show, was denied visitation by her stepmother during her father’s last days. Now, her group lobbies to pass a bill to remove the barriers of family participation while still providing ample protection for those in true need. Falk says that lawmakers in nearly two dozen states have responded positively to changing the status quo.
Change couldn’t come fast enough for Betty Winstanley. Ever since her eldest son, Richard, took a family squabble to court in July 2014, she has had to live where her husband died, without the family she so desperately craves. Her estate was worth $1.9 million before her guardianship began in July 2014. I wonder what it’s down to now.