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Caretaker to Return $60,000 Bequest

The 'gesture of sincerity' comes amid heightened scrutiny of conservators after a Times series.

November 18, 2005|Evelyn Larrubia, Jack Leonard and Robin Fields | Times Staff Writers

A caretaker who wrote a will for a nearly blind veteran under conservatorship and inherited his estate worth more than $60,000 has agreed to return the inheritance as a "gesture of sincerity," her lawyer said Thursday.

The caretaker, Verlene Cameron, abandoned the crude, one-page will she had typed for Louis Williams, 80, a World War II veteran, after The Times questioned its validity in a series of articles that highlighted abuse and neglect by professional conservators.

When Cameron wrote the will for Williams in 2000, naming herself the sole beneficiary of his estate, Williams' dementia was so advanced that a judge had stripped him of the right to vote. He died in 2002.

Cameron's decision, made public by her attorney, John Mickus, came amid calls for reform of the state's conservatorship system after The Times' four-day series, which was published this week. Conservators are court-appointed guardians who control the lives, property and finances of adults deemed unable to manage their affairs.

The newspaper found that professional conservators were able to strip the elderly and disabled adults of their civil rights without their knowledge or consent. Some conservators neglected their wards, isolated them from relatives and ran up fees. Overwhelmed probate courts, charged with overseeing conservators, frequently overlooked incompetence, neglect and outright theft.

Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), chairman of the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, said he would call for hearings to investigate how to better regulate conservators and prevent abuses.

"This is extraordinarily disturbing," Jones said. "The committee I chair and the Legislature is going to want to investigate and take steps to make sure that frail and vulnerable people are not being abused."

Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) said she intends to sponsor legislation to correct another problem in the system. This involves cases where conservators fight with seniors over control of their lives. The newspaper found that judges typically ordered the elderly to pay their conservators' legal fees.

Liu said her new legislation would make such billing more difficult. The assemblywoman, who wrote legislation requiring minimum educational qualifications for professional conservators, said she is also considering introduction of a bill to license them.

"It just makes common sense to me that the state ought to take more control over this sort of thing than allowing the system to continue as it is," she said. "We cannot tolerate this as the way it's going on now."

Others expressed concern about the speed with which the lives of the elderly were entrusted to conservators. The Times found that for-profit conservators, citing emergencies, gained authority over more than 500 seniors without their consent at hearings that lasted minutes.

"I'm extremely troubled at the broad use of the emergency guardianships," said Erica F. Wood, assistant director of the American Bar Assn.'s Commission on Law and Aging.

Wood called for California lawmakers to restrict conservators' ability to gain emergency appointments to cases in which a senior's life is at stake. She also urged lawmakers to follow the example of Arizona, Washington and other states that license professional conservators, who are now subject in California to less regulation than hairdressers and guide-dog trainers.

"That's badly needed in the state of California," she said.

The state's chief justice, Ronald M. George, said he would closely review the newspaper's findings and called for more funding for the probate courts that monitor conservators.

"The area of conservatorship is just one area in which courts are struggling to perform their function to provide fair and equitable justice," George said. "It may be that we need more stringent requirements all around."

The Professional Fiduciary Assn. of California, a trade group of professional conservators, issued a statement noting that many conservators had helped seniors in need.

"This is a good system, but one that is overloaded and overworked and will continue to be as our aging population grows," the statement said.

Jackie Miller, the organization's executive director, said the group will seek licensing for professional conservators, a measure that has repeatedly died either in the Legislature or by gubernatorial veto. In addition, the organization's ethics committee will review the cases highlighted by The Times.

Cameron's decision to abandon the will she wrote for Williams and return her inheritance to Williams' relatives ended a case that began when conservator Anne L. Chavis placed the veteran in a boarding home run by Cameron in South Los Angeles. Cameron said she wrote the new will making herself Williams' sole beneficiary because he "loved me like a daughter."

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