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Family Feud Puts Focus on State Conservator System

September 17, 2006|Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

When a San Bernardino County judge placed Raymond Horspool under the control of a conservator in July, the 86-year-old chemist and former Navy captain was not even present in the courtroom.

It's a common occurrence in probate courts in California, where conservators and their attorneys often obtain emergency appointments the day they ask for them by claiming that elderly adults cannot care for themselves and are in imminent danger because of abuse or neglect.

But this was no ordinary case.

The attorneys who cited Horspool's failing health and short-term memory problems -- who are among the county's busiest conservatorship lawyers -- were using the system's dramatic powers against the wishes of their own father and three of their siblings.

As the Horspool family drama plays out, a four-bill package of legislation offering new protections for incapacitated adults in similar situations awaits the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The legal battle over Horspool began when two of his nine children, attorneys David and Karin Horspool, filed court papers asking that their eldest sister, Margaret Updike, be named immediately as their father's temporary conservator.

At a July 31 hearing, Updike told Judge Frank Gafkowski that dementia, short-term memory problems and numbness in his right leg had left her father unable to care for himself.

Updike also said her father's pensions and savings were at risk because he had mailed checks in response to deceptive mailings informing him that he had won a prize that required a payment in advance.

Such hasty proceedings are meant for emergency situations. They enable judges to appoint interim conservators before safeguards required in nonemergency cases kick in. But they have become the norm.

And so it was with Horspool: Gafkowski appointed Updike as his temporary conservator on the spot, without a court investigator having interviewed him or his other children to determine whether he needed or wanted a conservator.

Had the judge waited for such an interview, his court investigator would have heard a different side of the family saga.

"Nobody has heard a word from me. It's all one-sided," Horspool complained while sitting near the stone fireplace of his wife's comfortable one-story Grand Terrace home.

Horspool and his wife, Winifred -- the two, both widowed, married five years ago -- said they have been getting all the help they need from Horspool's son William, 44, a former state prison guard who retired on medical disability.

William Horspool disputes that his father was being swindled by mailings. He and one of his sisters, Barbara Horspool Howard, say their lawyer siblings are gaming a system they know well to gain the upper hand in a family dispute.

"It's over nothing, and they're using their power as attorneys to do this," said Howard, 47, a travel agent from Brentwood. "It's very disturbing that the court just lets this happen."

David Horspool, who has been handling probate matters more than 20 years, said he took the case to court because his brother William Horspool was no longer taking proper care of their father -- missing medical appointments and doses of medication -- and because he was concerned about how he was handling their father's finances.

He said he didn't tell the court in the emergency petition that his brother was attempting to be his father's informal caretaker because "the allegations were enough to get the temporary [conservatorship] established.... What do you want -- a 30-page pleading?"

He said he did not tell his rival siblings about the emergency hearing because the law didn't require him to do so. The disagreement among the siblings and his father's poor memory were enough of an emergency under the law.

"I believed it was important to put somebody in place and bring order to the situation, order to the process. In a difficult situation, the court brings order to the process," he said. He said he told his father about the hearing beforehand but said he probably forgot five minutes later.

"That's the crux of the matter. His short-term memory is gone," David Horspool said. "My father has no idea of what his financial situation is. He doesn't believe he has medical problems."

New Requirements

The reform legislation awaiting action by Schwarzenegger, passed two weeks ago by the Legislature, would require court investigators to visit adults before -- or within two days of -- emergency appointments. Investigators also would have to interview the senior's relatives, neighbors and close friends before recommending that the court appoint a conservator.

Schwarzenegger has given no indication whether he plans to sign or veto the measures. But he has expressed support for reforming the conservatorship system and said that elderly and dependent adults have been subjected to abuse.

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