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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

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 decisions.

"Dementia is not a black-and-white disease," Smith said. "People can be very clear about some things and very confused about others."

When Fairfield died, Marin Support Services inherited more than $675,000.

'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 Co.

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 recalled.

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 weakened state.

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 about $24,000.

"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," he said.

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 conservator.

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.

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