'American free-enterprise, capitalist democracy and the right to make as much
money as you can and spend it any way you choose -as long as there's no law
[part one only, the three additional parts of subsequent days will not be
posted on this listerserve.]
A child of the Depression, Jones, 87, worked hard for
decades, driving rivets into World War II fighter planes, making neckties,
threading bristles into nail-polish brushes. She saved obsessively, putting
away $560,000 for her old age.
November 13, 2005 Los Angeles Times
GUARDIANS FOR PROFIT
When a Family Matter Turns Into a Business
Conservators are supposed to protect the elderly and infirm. But some
neglect their clients, isolate them -- even plunder their assets.
By Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard, Times Staff Writers
Helen Jones sits in a wheelchair, surrounded by strangers who control her
She is not allowed to answer the telephone. Her mail is
screened. She cannot spend her own money.
Her life changed three years ago, when a woman named Melodie
Scott told a court in San Bernardino that Jones was unable to manage for
herself. Without asking Jones, a judge made Scott someone she had never met
her legal guardian.
Scott is a professional conservator.
It was her responsibility to protect Jones and conserve her
nest egg. So far, Scott has spent at least $200,000 of it. The money has gone
to pay Scott's fees, fill Jones' house with new appliances she did not want and
hire attendants to supervise her around the clock, among other expenses.
Once Jones grasped what was happening, she found a lawyer and
tried, unsuccessfully, to end Scott's hold on her. "I don't want to be a burden
to anyone," she told a judge, almost apologetically. "I just wanted to be on my
Jones' world has narrowed. She used to call Dial-A-Ride and
go to the market, or sit in her driveway chatting with neighbors.
Now she spends her days watching television in her living
room in Yucaipa, amid pots of yellow plastic flowers and lamps with no shades.
The caretakers rarely take her from her house, except to see the free movie
each Friday at the local senior center.
"I'm frustrated, because I don't know my way out," she said,
sitting within earshot of one of Scott's aides. "There must be a way out."
Jones' conservator is part of a young, growing and largely
unregulated trade in California.
Conservatorship began as a way to help families protect
enfeebled relatives from predators and self-neglect. As a final recourse,
courts take basic freedoms from grown men and women and give conservators
sweeping power over their property, their money and the smallest details of
But lawmakers and judges did not foresee that professionals
would turn what had been a family matter into a business.
In the hands of this new breed of entrepreneur, a system
meant to safeguard the elderly and infirm often fails them.
The Times examined the work of California's professional
conservators, reviewing more than 2,400 cases, including every one they handled
in Southern California between 1997 and 2003.
Among the findings:
Seniors lose their independence with stunning swiftness. More than 500 were
entrusted to for-profit conservators without their consent at hearings that
lasted minutes. Retired candy company owner Donald Van Ness, 85, did not know
what had happened to him until he tried to pay for lunch at a San Diego-area
restaurant and was told his credit card had been canceled.
Some conservators misuse their near-parental power over
fragile adults, ignoring their needs and isolating them from loved ones. One
withheld the allowance that a disabled man relied on for food, leaving him to
survive on handouts from a church. Another abruptly moved a 95-year-old woman
to a care home and for a month refused to tell her daughter where she was.
In the most egregious cases, conservators plunder seniors'
estates. One took 88-year-old Thelma Larabee's savings to pay his taxes and
invest in a friend's restaurant. Helen Smith's conservator secretly sold
Smith's house at a discount to herself. The conservator's daughter later
resold it for triple the price.
More commonly, conservators run up their fees in ways
large and small, eating into seniors' assets. A conservator charged a Los
Angeles woman $170 in fees to have an employee bring her $49.93 worth of
groceries. Palm Springs widow Mary Edelman kept paying from beyond the grave:
Her conservators charged her estate $1,700 for attending her burial.
Once in conservators' grasp, it is difficult and
expensive for seniors to get out. Courts typically compel them to pay not
only their own legal fees, but those of their unwanted guardians as well. In
the 15 months it took Theresa Herrera's grandson to unseat her conservator,
almost half of the 92-year-old's $265,000 estate had been exhausted.
"It's really scary," said Mitchell Karasov, a North Hollywood
attorney who specializes in elder law. "Would you want that to happen to you?
This is what we'll have to look forward to that we'll be disposable when we
no longer have a voice."
There are about 500 professional conservators in California,
overseeing $1.5 billion in assets. They hold legal authority over at least
4,600 of California's most vulnerable adults.
Yet they are subject to less state regulation than
hairdressers or guide-dog trainers. No agency licenses conservators or
investigates complaints against them.
Probate courts are supposed to supervise their work. Yet
oversight is erratic and superficial. Even when questionable conduct is brought
to their attention, judges rarely take action against conservators.
Three of the past four governors have vetoed legislation that
would have provided tougher oversight.
This deeply flawed system is about to be hit by a demographic
wave. By 2030, the number of Americans older than 65 is expected to double.
Experts predict that as many as 10% of them will suffer from Alzheimer's
'She Was Managing'
Helen Jones said she always dreaded the sort of old age she has now, marked by
Married only briefly and late in life, Jones said she had
always done for herself, even as a child in Nebraska, where she scavenged for
coal along the railroad tracks to help keep her family warm.
Before Scott entered her life, she kept her financial records
in accordion files, paid her bills promptly and knew how much money she had,
down to the penny.
She was nearly deaf, and a rare disorder of the nervous
system limited her mobility. But she could still make her way to the bank and
take her wash to a local laundromat.
"She was managing," said Alice Wilson, a neighbor for more
than 30 years. "She's a self-sufficient person."
As Jones' conservator, Scott took over her checking account
and put her on an allowance, initially $50 every two weeks.
Scott started making improvements to Jones' pale stucco home,
installing central air conditioning, a new refrigerator and a washer and dryer.
Scott paid her own sister $1,550 to paint the house.
It pained Jones to see someone else spending her money. So
frugal that she still has a red-knit sweater she wore 60 years ago, she even
complained when Scott billed her $40 for a Christmas tree. The plastic one in
her garage would have done just fine, Jones said.
Decisions about her medical care were another source of
Scott said in court papers that, months after becoming her
conservator, she received medical records indicating that Jones had once been
diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Scott's staff began taking Jones to a psychiatrist. He
prescribed Zyprexa, a drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Jones refused to take it, saying she did not have either condition.
An aide hired by Scott, Gerlie Kirbac, said one of the
conservator's subordinates told her to crush the drug into Jones' food, but she
Kirbac said she also took Jones to the bank so she could
check on her money and was fired for it.
"Melodie told me I can't handle Helen," she said. "I said,
'What kind of handle do you want?' "
Scott, 47, whose conservatorship business is the largest in
the Inland Empire, said she could not discuss the case because Jones' medical
history is private and her complaints are the subject of litigation.
"It would be horribly unethical to breach Mrs. Jones' dignity
and right to confidentiality," Scott said in a statement.
In her most recent court filing, a routine list of bills and
fees, Scott described Jones as "alert, conversant, obstinate, independent and
She also said Jones suffered from schizophrenia.
Carefully annotating her own copy of the report, Jones
circled "schizophrenia" and wrote a comment in the margin: "BS."
Early this year, as Jones struggled to reclaim her
independence, she lost her younger brother, Frank Janicek.
He was her last bit of family, her Sunday telephone call. A
former Douglas Aircraft worker who served in Africa during World War II,
Janicek died of pneumonia in January at 85.
Jones wanted him to have a traditional burial. An earlier
experience had left her strongly opposed to cremation.
But upon learning that Jones had a conservator, the funeral
home called Scott, who made arrangements for the disposal of Janicek's
In March, a caretaker drove Jones to Riverside National
Cemetery, then pushed her wheelchair to a shelter about the size of a bus stop.
A bugler played taps. Two women in dress uniform folded an American flag and
presented it to Jones.
She was pleased to see her brother put to rest with military
But she noticed that there was no coffin.
Instead, there was a brass urn containing Janicek's ashes.
Rise of a Profession
The concept of conservatorship dates back at least to medieval England, where
guardians were appointed to manage the property of people deemed "lunatic."
In the U.S., California stood for decades as the model for a
humane system. The state pioneered legislation in the 1960s and '70s to protect
against arbitrary or needless conservatorships. Adults were guaranteed advance
notice of court hearings to appoint a conservator, along with legal
representation and the right to a jury trial.
Lawmakers assumed the conservator would be a family member or
In 1969, John M. Mills, an economics professor at El Camino
College, rented a room in a downtown Los Angeles church and opened what is
believed to have been the state's first conservatorship business.
Twenty years later, a court banished Mills from the trade
after the state attorney general's office accused him of financial
irregularities. By then, he had inspired many others to enter the field.
In most instances, loved ones still act as conservators for
incapacitated old people. But professionals now handle about 15% of the cases
in Southern California.
Although some have only a few clients, others run thriving
businesses, managing the lives of more than 100 adults at once. An elite group
focuses on wealthy seniors, employing large staffs and commanding rates of up
to $135 an hour.
Conservators hold positions of trust on a par with lawyers,
accountants and investment firms. In contrast with those professions, however,
they don't have to earn degrees or pass licensing exams. Anyone with a clean
felony record who pays a $385 state registration fee can go into the
Only now is the state moving to impose basic standards.
Beginning next year, conservators will need a college degree, experience in the
field or certain levels of training. Most current practitioners will not be
Conservators find clients by sponsoring breakfasts at senior
centers and networking at legal luncheons. Nursing homes call when residents
become too addled to pay the rent, wanting a conservator to write checks for
them. Hospitals call when patients have outlasted their insurance, hoping that
a conservator will move them somewhere else.
Once conservators identify a prospect, they can go to court
and initiate a case without the client's approval.
With rare exceptions, they look for people with money. Frumeh
Labow, Los Angeles' busiest conservator, sets a minimum of $300,000 enough to
guarantee her paycheck for at least a few years, if the client lives that
Other conservators have a more modest threshold.
"If the person has six months, the doctor tells me she has
terminal cancer and she only has $30,000, I'll take a chance on that," said
Jeffrey Siegel, who runs a large Los Angeles practice.
In many cases, professional conservators have done admirable
work. Some have saved seniors from con artists or thieving relatives. Others
have ensured that lonely adults lived out their last days in dignity.
Many continue to serve clients after their money has run
"We're in this business to help people and to protect
people," said Ron Patterson, a Bay Area conservator who is president of the
Professional Fiduciary Assn. of California. "None of us are here, I believe, to
enrich ourselves in any way except the natural way one does in business."
But even some conservators admit they would not want one
"I can decide who they see. I can put them in a nursing
home," said Labow. "It's the biggest imposition on your civil liberties short
of being imprisoned."
Quickly in Control
Professional conservators take over with jarring speed.
In many courtrooms, they get emergency appointments on the
day they ask for them, based on short forms in which they swear that
prospective clients cannot care for themselves.
These hasty hearings are meant for cases in which elderly
people are in imminent danger. But professional conservators have made them the
norm, The Times found. More than half of their Southern California cases began
Adults are entitled by law to attend emergency hearings. Yet
they were not formally notified in more than half the cases The Times examined.
Often, judges dispensed with the requirement after conservators told them that
prospective wards were too feeble to come to court.
By securing immediate appointments, professionals can gain
control over elders before safeguards required in nonemergency cases kick in.
For example, in nine of 10 emergency cases, wards were not interviewed by a
court investigator before a judge decided they needed a conservator.
The events leading to Jones' conservatorship began in
November 2002, when a chance acquaintance, Cindy Gurrola, gave her a ride to
the bank. After Gurrola expressed concern for Jones' welfare, a bank employee
gave her the business card of a Redlands company that serves the elderly.
Gurrola said she called the number and gave an employee
Jones' address. There was no mention of conservatorship or that Jones would be
giving up legal control of her affairs, Gurrola said.
About a week later, Jones said, she was napping in her home
when a woman walked in and woke her. The woman said she was with "CARE." Jones
said she thought that meant California Alternate Rates and Energy, Southern
California Edison's reduced-rate program for seniors.
Jones signed a one-paragraph document, not bothering to read
In fact, the woman worked for Conservatorship and Resources
for the Elderly Inc., the firm owned by Melodie Scott. The document said that
Jones nominated Scott to be her conservator.
"I was sleeping here and someone tapped me on the shoulder
and said sign this," Jones said. "And stupid, I signed it, not knowing what I
"To me, 'conserve' means to save and I thought this was a way
of saving me money so I wouldn't have to pay utilities."
The nomination was dated Nov. 22. Eleven days later, Scott
filed an emergency request to become Jones' conservator. She said Jones could
not keep up with her bills, had a house full of clutter and could no longer
manage "the activities of daily living."
Judge Phillip M. Morris granted the petition the next
After about a year, Jones decided to fight back. A bank clerk
told her that she could not redeem a CD that had matured only Scott could.
Upset, Jones had her caregiver take her to see paralegal Barbara Seifritz at
the Yucaipa Senior Center.
Jones appeared so clear-headed and well-informed that
Seifritz was surprised to learn she was under conservatorship. So was Bob
Roddick, Seifritz's boss at the nonprofit Inland Counties Legal Services.
At a hearing in March 2004, Roddick told Judge David A.
Williams that Jones did not need a conservator.
"She seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself,"
"Well, we already have a conservatorship," the judge
"I have it, but I would like to terminate it," Jones told
him, confiding her worry that Scott was draining the savings it had taken her
60 years to build.
The judge could have ended her conservatorship on the spot or
directed his staff to investigate. He did neither.
He appointed an attorney to review the handling of Jones'
finances, but left her in Scott's hands.
By then, Jones had gotten a look at Scott's expense records
and saw that her money was going out nearly three times as fast as it was
coming in. Scott's firm is spending Jones' money at a rate of $84,000 a year,
records show. Her income is about $27,000 a year.
At a hearing in August 2004, court-appointed attorney
Donnasue Ortiz challenged the conservator's fees and spending as
Scott sought to justify the expenses by saying that Jones was
"near death" when she intervened. She told the court that Jones had left a
convalescent home "against medical advice," that she was "totally dehydrated
and malnourished" and that her garage harbored "thousands of rats," prompting
complaints from neighbors.
Jones called Scott's description "one big fabrication." She
said that she spent several days in a nursing facility after suffering a fall
in October 2002 but that a social worker signed her out, saying she did not
need to be there. Two friends who drove her home corroborated her account.
As for rats, three of Jones' neighbors said in interviews
that they never saw or complained about any.
In July, with the conservatorship still in place, a
frustrated Roddick filed a petition to end it. A judge refused to hear his
arguments, saying he had no standing to intervene.
The judge scheduled a hearing for Dec. 2 at which Jones will
be represented by Ortiz.
"I don't know how this is going to turn out," Jones said
outside the courtroom. "My age is against me and my hearing is against me."
'Chewing Up Estates'
From the moment seniors are entrusted to a professional conservator, the meter
The law allows conservators to spend their wards' money as
they see fit and requires them to submit periodic reports. Courts must approve
their fees, but state law sets no limit on their compensation beyond that it be
Reports examined by The Times show that conservators have
billed elderly people for what one described as "drive-by" property inspections
and for moving furniture around a room.
Frances Dell, 90, paid her conservator $715 for accompanying
her to parties and informing her that her favorite niece had died, among other
services. "She needed someone to cry with and mourn her own mortality," the
conservator wrote in her bill.
Seniors often pay for layers of helpers hired by their
conservators property managers, home-care supervisors, case managers and
more. They pay for flowers, chocolates and other gifts that conservators give
them on special occasions.
Among the Christmas presents one woman unwittingly lavished
on herself: men's cologne and a stocking with her name embroidered on it,
"The word is conserve. You're supposed to conserve people's
estates," La Mesa probate attorney Richard Schwering said. "Conservatorship is
chewing up estates."
The bills pile up even faster when seniors or their families
challenge conservators' control.
Wards pay their conservators' legal bills on top of their own
because the court does not consider the parties to be adversaries. Even when
conservators oppose their clients' wishes, they are assumed to be looking out
for their best interests.
Street-smart and self-made, Charles Thomas built an $18-
million empire by investing in Burger King franchises and real estate in some
of Los Angeles' toughest neighborhoods. After he was diagnosed with Parkinson's-
like symptoms, it became clear he would have to hand over the reins of his
Thomas had a complex family, with children from several
marriages. He picked an outsider Labow to be conservator of his estate.
She was appointed in September 1998. Just over a year later,
Thomas told his court-appointed counsel that he "wanted Frumeh Labow out of my
Labow refused to go, saying Thomas had chosen her before his
illness clouded his judgment.
After five years, Labow remained in charge. Thomas had paid
$1.1 million in fees to her, the lawyers his relatives had hired to oust her,
and the six attorneys Labow had hired to fend them off and manage his
Suffering from aphasia, Thomas, 70, is no longer able to
speak for himself. His family has come to accept that Labow will be a permanent
presence in their lives.
"You can't fight them if they're using his money to fight
you," said his son, Michael.
'Sarah Could Be Trusted'
Court-sanctioned fees are the only compensation to which conservators are
entitled for managing the affairs of their clients.
The Times found at least 50 instances in which conservators
used their authority over seniors' assets to benefit themselves or their
friends, relatives or employers in other ways. Courts approved many of their
actions, though often with incomplete information.
A Sacramento conservator hired his live-in girlfriend's firm
to auction off his wards' possessions and sell their houses. A San Francisco
conservator decorated his apartment with a client's valuable Chinese
Melodie Scott acknowledges that she let another professional
conservator, Sarah Kerley, live rent-free in a client's house in Glendale for
months. Kerley was married to Scott's brother at the time.
Scott did not disclose their relationship in her reports to
the court. In an interview, she said the three-bedroom, Spanish-style house was
in poor condition and that Kerley made repairs in lieu of paying rent and,
later on, in exchange for reduced rent.
Scott said she did what she thought was best for the client,
"There was no intention ever to take advantage of Ms.
Ledingham to the benefit of Sarah Kerley or myself," Scott said. "I thought I
was being a hero
. This charming little house, this beautiful garden Sarah
could be trusted."
While Kerley was living there, Ledingham paid the utility
bills, as well as thousands of dollars to a gardener and a property manager
hired by Scott.
Ledingham, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was 51 when
Scott took control of her affairs. Scott moved her into a board-and-care and,
later, an apartment while Kerley lived in her house.
Ledingham's daughter, a sophomore at a Louisiana college when
the conservatorship began, said she was appalled by what happened.
"There were all these people conservators, attorneys,
judges," said Candace Ledingham-Ramos. "No one was looking out for my
Marin Support Services for Elders, a nonprofit group for
seniors, was supposed to look out for Florry Fairfield.
Fairfield, a retired real estate agent who had never married,
lived with her miniature schnauzer, Daisy, in the quiet Bay Area suburb of
Anne Smith, then director of Marin Support Services, became
Fairfield's conservator in March 2001 after telling a court that Alzheimer's-
type dementia had left her "clearly unable to handle her affairs or resist
Less than a month later, Fairfield, then 82, signed a new
will. It was drafted by the lawyer representing Marin Support Services in the
The will made the organization the main beneficiary of
Fairfield's $1.1-million estate and named Smith co-executor.
California law bars professional conservators from inheriting
from their wards in such circumstances unless the will was reviewed by an
independent attorney or a court. There is no evidence that either step was
taken in Fairfield's case.
The law clearly applies to individual conservators. It is
unclear whether it applies in this instance because the beneficiary of the will
was Marin Support Services, not Smith. Still, experts said, neither
conservators nor their employers should become their clients' heirs because it
creates a conflict of interest.
"What incentive do they have then to keep the client alive?"
said Mitchell Karasov, the elder-law attorney. Every penny spent on the ward's
care would reduce the conservator's bequest, he said.
William Kuhns, the lawyer for Marin Support Services, said he
drew up the will at Fairfield's request. She decided on her own how to divide
her wealth, he said.
"Maybe it gives you the appearance of a conflict of interest,
but I've been an attorney for many years, and I'm very comfortable that this
was in accordance with her wishes," said Kuhns.
Kuhns collected more than $36,000 for his work on Fairfield's
conservatorship and estate.
Four weeks after Fairfield signed the will, a judge deemed
her dementia severe enough to disqualify her from voting.
Asked how Fairfield could be too demented to vote, yet able
to divide a million-dollar estate, Smith said she could not comment, citing
concern for Fairfield's privacy. Speaking generally, she said that people
suffering from dementia could still possess the mental soundness to make such
"Dementia is not a black-and-white disease," Smith said.
"People can be very clear about some things and very confused about
When Fairfield died, Marin Support Services inherited more
'Lurking in the Shadows'
Even elderly people who have organized their affairs in advance can be pulled
into this broken system.
Robert Mushet thought his mother was set.
Dorothy Mushet had signed papers designating her son, then an
engineer with Boeing, to make decisions for her if need be. When she began to
show signs of dementia, he arranged for her medical care and managed the money
she had inherited from his father and earned as a saleswoman for Joseph Magnin
Then, in September 2002, Robert got a call from his mother's
nursing home. A Santa Barbara court, he learned, had appointed a professional
conservator for Dorothy, then 94.
"I hung up the phone and darn near collapsed," Robert
His estranged daughter had petitioned for a conservator,
saying he had moved Dorothy to the nursing home against her will. The daughter
nominated Suzanne McNeely, a leading Santa Barbara conservator. Robert said he
moved his mother because it was dangerous for her to live at home in her
With court permission, McNeely moved Dorothy Mushet back into
her house and hired her own firm to provide round-the-clock aides for four
months, for which she later tried to charge $68,000.
Robert ultimately persuaded a court to make him his mother's
conservator, as she had wanted, and to cut McNeely's total bill from $80,600 to
"You brought a matter to court that shouldn't even have come
here," Judge J. William McLafferty told McNeely and her attorney.
Though victorious, Robert Mushet said he ran up $50,000 in
legal fees. McNeely appealed the judge's reduction in her fee, ultimately
settling for a $5,000 increase.
Dorothy died in March 2003. Her son said he felt strangely
grateful to her disease for shielding her from the nasty tug of war that
poisoned her final months.
"It would've killed my mom if she knew anything about this,"
Gerardine Brown, a state parole officer, had little notion
what conservatorship was until she retrieved a letter from her mailbox one
night in May 2000.
It said a stranger had asked to become her 86-year-old
mother's conservator. A judge was set to hear the case 12 hours later in Los
Angeles 375 miles from Brown's home outside Sacramento.
Brown got into her car and sped south, driving through the
night. "I didn't have time to hire an attorney," she said. "I'm standing there
in front of the judge with no idea of what I'm going to face."
Brown's mother, Charlotte Shelton, was a retired biochemist
whose work for the Navy broke ground for a woman of her era. Brown her only
child said she called Shelton regularly, trying to persuade her to move
closer to her remaining family as her health failed. Shelton clung stubbornly
to her home in Eagle Rock.
Sarah Kerley, the same conservator Scott had let live in a
client's house, told the court that Shelton's doctor had asked her to step in.
Kerley arranged for a psychiatric evaluation that led to Shelton's involuntary
hospitalization in a mental ward. Then Kerley filed papers to become her
The judge appointed Kerley temporarily while a court-
appointed attorney assessed Shelton's condition. The attorney reported three
weeks later that he saw no reason why Brown should not assume responsibility
for her mother, as long as she did not move her from Southern California. When
the judge approved the change, Brown figured the conservator was gone.
Not so. Kerley fought for a continuing role in Shelton's
life, challenging Brown on who should pick her mother's doctors and who should
be her permanent conservator.
Eventually, Brown said, she agreed that her mother would pay
Kerley's fees and those of her attorney if Kerley would stay out of the
family's affairs. Just as the settlement was being finalized, Shelton died.
The conservator and her attorney later collected almost
$18,000 from Shelton's estate.
Kerley did not respond to requests for comment.
"These people are just lurking in the shadows," Brown said.
"It's just chilling to think it can happen to anybody."
Postier vs. Marshall
Over 13 days beginning in September 2002, the rarest of scenes played out in a
San Jose courtroom.
Lawyers for an elderly woman named Ruth Postier took a
professional conservator to trial, accusing him of violating her rights and
wasting her money.
Russell Marshall, a well-known Santa Clara County
conservator, had secured an emergency appointment to look after Postier, then
77, and her husband, Ed, 80, in August 2000.
Until then, the Postiers had eked by, relying on friends for
help. Married since they were teenagers, they had no children or surviving
close relatives. They had only Social Security for income, having exhausted
their savings from an upholstery business.
Their house was their one real asset, worth more than
$500,000 despite its crumbling roof and exposed wiring. It held decades of
memories, including a wall of ribbons won by Stardust, their champion
In the eight months that Marshall was their conservator, the
Postiers chafed at his authority.
After Ed allegedly threatened Ruth during an argument,
Marshall moved him into a locked nursing home without the necessary court
permission. He later moved the Postiers into separate apartments in an assisted-
living complex and put their home up for sale.
Marshall also exhausted their meager resources, incurring
more than $50,000 in unpaid bills. He hired a family therapist, paying her $65
an hour not only to counsel the couple, but also to shop for pillowcases,
wastebaskets and other household items.
After two months, a court investigator came to check on the
Postiers. They complained bitterly about Marshall. Public Defender Malorie
Street was assigned to represent the couple and objected when the conservator
asked to have his temporary control over their affairs made permanent.
Marshall, in an interview, defended his conduct.
"They wanted me to be their conservator because they wanted
to move," he said. He said he had planned the Postiers' expenses carefully and
would not have run up debts if Street's opposition had not delayed his efforts
to sell their house.
In April 2001, Ed died and the county public guardian took
responsibility for Ruth.
After Marshall submitted his final report, Street demanded
that the court sanction him for abusing her clients.
When the matter went to trial, a videotape deposition Ruth
had given months earlier was shown in court. She could not testify in person,
having suffered a stroke that left her speech almost unintelligible. Instead,
her worn face appeared on a TV screen, oxygen lines running from her nose.
"Did you want Ms. Street to sue Russell Marshall?" the
conservator's attorney asked her.
"Well, he sure didn't do right by me," Postier replied. "He
made a mess of my life."
She described how the conservator began removing her
belongings from the house as she ate dinner one night.
"Just hauled it out, whether I liked it or not," she
Postier said she had never wanted to leave the home she had
shared with her husband for so many years. Though they argued often, she once
told a friend she wanted their headstone to say, "Ruth and Ed Postier, Together
She raised trembling, papery hands over her eyes.
"I went through hell," she said.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Hansen found that Marshall had
increased the Postiers' indebtedness and moved Ed without proper authority.
Nonetheless, he decided Marshall's conduct did not constitute elder abuse.
Hansen awarded Ruth nominal damages of $1, saying it was
impossible to measure monetarily what harm, if any, Marshall's actions had
The judge awarded Marshall and his legal team $75,000. Later,
Postier's own lawyers collected more than double that amount, swallowing what
was left of her estate.
Street came away stunned.
"That case sent me around the bend," she said. "The statutes
designed to protect my clients didn't."
Shortly before Ruth Postier died on May 29, 2003, her
caretakers deposited Marshall's check to her.
It was for $1.02.
Damages plus interest.
Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
More than half of all conservatorships filed by professionals in Southern
California between 1997 and 2003 were granted by the courts on an emergency
basis, often bypassing initial assessments by court investigators and other
safeguards designed to protect wards' rights. In all, there were 1,160
Granted without notice to senior or family: 56%
Granted before an attorney appointed: 64%
Granted before court investigator's report: 92%
Sources: Probate records for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and
Ventura counties. Data analysis by Maloy Moore
An aging population
The proportion of Americans 65 and older is expected to grow between now and
2030, as is the number 85 and older.
- 65 years and older
2030 projected: 20%
- 85 years and older
2030 projected: 3%
- 65 years and older
2030 projected: 17%
- 85 years and older
2030 projected: 2%
- 65 years and older
2030 projected: 17%
- 85 years and older
2030 projected: 2%
Source: Census Bureau, California Department of Finance, Times reporting.
Graphics reporting by Maloy Moore
To avoid a conservatorship, or to ensure that someone you trust is put in
charge of your affairs, attorneys recommend one or more of the following
A durable power of attorney designates someone to manage your
finances. It does not have to be drafted by an attorney, but must be notarized
if real estate is involved. If you don't plan on using an attorney, ask for a
"statutory" form at stationery stores or look for it on the Internet.
An advance healthcare directive authorizes a friend or loved
one to make medical decisions for you. A kit for creating one can be ordered
online through the California Medical Assn. (www.cmanet.org).
An advance nomination designates someone to serve as your
conservator if a court deems one necessary.
A revocable trust, also known as a living trust, designates
an individual to manage your assets outside court jurisdiction while you are
alive and after you die, thereby avoiding the cost of probate. Trust documents
must be filed with your bank and other financial institutions.
Be sure to inform the people whom you have designated to make
decisions for you. Give them copies of the appropriate documents and tell them
where the originals have been filed.
Source: California Medical Assn; Irell & Manella; Mitchell A.
Karasov; American Bar Assn.
About this series
Caring for the aged and infirm was once a family affair. Now, it is a business.
In documenting this change, reporters Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack
Leonard and researcher Maloy Moore examined records of more than 2,400 cases
handled by California's professional conservators since 1997. They also
conducted hundreds of interviews with probate lawyers, judges and independent
experts as well as people under conservatorship and their loved ones.
Monday: How probate courts have failed the elderly.
Tuesday: One conservator's troubled career.
Wednesday: L.A.'s public guardian a canceled promise.