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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.

November 13, 2005|Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

"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 day.

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," Roddick said.

"Well, we already have a conservatorship," the judge replied.

"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 "excessive."

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 is running.

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 "reasonable."

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, misspelled.

"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 businesses.

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