Probate Abuse Stretches Far Beyond Connecticut

Hartford Courant\

Federal Probe Finds Hundreds Of Cases Exploiting Elderly's Estates

Rick Green / November 2, 2010\

A scathing investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirms what I've been telling you about probate court in Connecticut for years.

A perverse industry is preying upon our most vulnerable citizens.

Court-appointed "conservators" are abusing, neglecting and exploiting the elderly and the sick --- the people they are supposed to be taking care of --- all across the nation. It is unclear how widespread the problem is, but this isn't limited to a handful of probate courts.

The GAO identified hundreds of instances in 45 states in the last 20 years where courts were accused of failing to adequately screen conservators, also know as guardians. Once appointed, the guardians failed to properly oversee individuals they were supposed to be helping.

"The allegations point to guardians taking advantage of wards by engaging in schemes that financially benefit the guardian but are financially detrimental to the ward under their care,'' GAO investigators concluded. "Victim's family members often lose their inheritance or are excluded by the guardian from decisions affecting their relative's care."

In Missouri, GAO investigators found a guardian who embezzled more than $640,000 from an 87-year-old man with Alzheimer's. In Connecticut, they found an attorney appointed as a conservator for four victims, all over 70 and with dementia, who stole more than $120,000. In California, guardians appointed to care for an elderly dementia patient instead sold the woman's properties at below-market value to behind-the-scenes buyers.

In New York, investigators found a guardian who whittled down the value of a 82-year-old man's multi-million estate to almost nothing. In another New York case, a guardian generated nearly $74,000 in excessive fees for himself, gouging the estate of a 92-year-old woman with significant memory loss and poor judgment.

"A big concern would be the courts' appointing people who aren't fit,'' said Ashley Glacel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which requested the GAO report. She said the committee has been hearing of complaints about guardianship abuse for years.

"Federal rights are being violated. Due process and civil rights are being violated. There is inhumane abuse," said Lori Duboys of the National Council To Stop Guardianship Abuse.

"The problem is lack of monitoring and oversight. Everyone agrees this is what needs fixing. There are tremendous conflicts of interest. The whole system is sick. It is being abused for profit," Duboys said.

Over the last few years, I've told you about Dan Gross, the man from Long Island imprisoned in a Waterbury nursing home by his conservator --- with the approval of the local probate judge. There was the German woman from New York City brought to Connecticut by her conservator and placed in a nursing home, cut off from all friends and family. In Greenwich, a judge allowed a conservator to place a Michigan woman in a nursing home here, severing her ties to friends, family and her considerable fortune.

More recently, there is the case of Sam Manzo, the Southington caretaker who was due to inherit Josephine Smoron's farm --- until a conservator rewrote the elderly woman's will as she lay dying and never bothered to tell her. Judge Bryan Meccariello, who approved the scheme, was forced to withdraw as a candidate for re-election . The conservator he appointed, John Nugent, is still trying to enforce the discredited trust agreement that allows a local developer to acquire the property.

"What the GAO is saying is that there is no oversight,'' said Marilyn Denny, a Legal Aid lawyer in Hartford who often represents elderly victims of probate abuse. "There are really no checks. We are not checking on the people. We are not checking on how [conservators] do their jobs. These are vulnerable people There is nobody watching."

The senate committee may hold hearings on the GAO report next year. In Connecticut, where conservators are appointed with little scrutiny and even less oversight, the outrage continues, as it has for generations. Nobody, aside from a few Legal Aid lawyers and the occasional journalist, is watching.