Plundering Grandma’s Estate Through Court-Ordered Guardianships
by Diane Dimond
Would you hire someone to manage your personal affairs and finances who charged $50,599.18 in just three months?
What if they charged $1,560 to make two phone calls to your son to discuss “dates for (a) Christmas” visit with you? Or if you got a bill for more than $1,000 from this person because her “computer emails appear(ed) to be breached … (and) extensive work (was) done on (her) phone and computer as a result,” and she charged you for calls to her IT department and an attorney she consulted?
And what if this same person refused to communicate with two of your three children even when you were rushed to the hospital? And when they placed a couple of phone calls three days later to see how you were doing you were charged another $990? Is there any part of this that sounds reasonable?
This is the reality facing a woman I wrote about earlier this year. Widow Betty Winstanley, 94, is under a disputed court-ordered guardianship and lives in a retirement home in Pennsylvania. She is forced to pay her court-appointed guardian for the expenses I just described (and many more) because Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court Judge Jay J. Hoberg says she must.
After a perfunctory hearing in July 2014, just three weeks after her husband of 72 years died and during which Betty said not one word (she attended without her hearing aids), Judge Hoberg declared the very articulate and quick-witted Winstanley was “totally incapacitated.”
Hoberg appointed a guardian from the for-profit guardian conglomerate to take complete control of Betty’s life, including when her children can visit, where she can go and disbursement of all her assets. Betty is concerned that her estate will quickly be emptied and there will be nothing left to leave her heirs.
“If I was so demented, as they say, these things wouldn’t bother me,” Winstanley told me in her cut-to-the-chase, common sense fashion.
The first guardian appointed to Betty charged $125 an hour. Her current guardian charges $300 an hour, and now she’s petitioned to sell the Winstanley home in Somerset, Pennsylvania, and liquidate two investment accounts so she can pay Betty’s bills, including the $50,599.18 she says is due to her. Even though this guardian has had control since December 2015, Betty’s monthly expenses at the retirement home haven’t been paid for months and she now owes back payments of $34,217.22. In addition, thousands more are owed to the attorney the guardian consults.
Since first writing about the growing problem of unwarranted court-ordered elder guardianships I have been deluged with horror stories from across the country. Wanting to understand the process better I recently attended one of Mrs. Winstanley’s hearings.
At issue the day I visited court was a motion by the guardian to subpoena Betty’s cellphone records. The guardian wanted the contents of all incoming and outgoing telephone calls, texts and voicemail messages to determine if Betty’s son, David, had “communicate(d) with his mother in an abusive and/or threatening manner.”
Back in 2014, David, frustrated with his mother’s new guardianship situation, had ranted a bit and left some unpleasant messages, but there have been no complaints against him since he was accused of “upsetting” his mother. Still, the hunt for conflict continues — at $300+ an hour.
An invasion of Betty’s privacy, you say? Yes, I thought so, too, and I wanted to see just how many civil rights a ward of the court loses after being declared “totally incompetent.”
I never got the chance. Judge Hoberg booted me from the courtroom along with two other journalists interested in Betty’s plight. His reason for closing the hearing to outside scrutiny? He wanted to protect “the ward’s” privacy! How ironic.
The judge ultimately ruled that Betty’s guardian could only ask the phone company if any numbers had been blocked on Betty’s phone. Her son Richard, who initiated the guardianship and has long been at odds with his brother David, had complained he had been blocked from contacting his mother. David, the actual owner of the phone, denies such action.
For almost two years now, Judge Hoberg has refused to look past the sibling sniping and rule on Betty’s simple request to move to a retirement home closer to David and her daughter, Liz, in Annapolis, Maryland. After all, Betty argues, they are the children who come to visit her most often, and she has other family in Maryland as well.
“I have no family near here,” Betty told me. “I just want to be near my family. Is that too much to ask?”
But understand: To let Betty leave the state would be to deprive Pennsylvania of the money her guardian, the for-profit guardian conglomerate, the retirement home and several others will make if Betty stays put. Because money is the great motivator in these cases I am not hopeful the judge will look past the ill-fitting incapacitation label he slapped on Betty and grant this elderly woman’s last wish to move.
The system has become a mockery of the laws designed to protect and defend our elderly. I write about it because it’s likely happening where you live, too. …