State of Pennsylvania
Elder Guardianship Aims to Bilk More Than Help
by Diane Dimond
I wrote about the plight of 94-year-old Betty Winstanley, who resides at the Masonic Village retirement home in Elizabethtown, Pa. She doesn’t want to live there anymore. Now that her husband of 72 years is gone, she longs to move to a care home closer to her two children in Maryland. The state of Pennsylvania won’t let her leave.
To the state, Betty is case #1201 of 2014, just another old person the court has declared, “totally incapacitated.” Once someone is so labeled, they get a court-appointed guardian who, literally, takes over their life.
Guardians decide all the ward’s finances, who can visit and for how long, when or if they can leave the home – everything.
This is widow Winstanley’s lot in life now. Yet when you talk to Betty, she is charming, articulate, highly intelligent and simply looking for a less lonely life during her last years.
I had no idea the enormity of the nation’s elder guardianship problem or how many individuals and organizations are fighting to change the now bastardized set of laws that can turn an elder’s life into a nightmare.
If the aging Baby Boomer generation hasn’t already experienced the problem with their own parents – steel yourselves – you could be the next one to get caught up in this awful system.
Reader Marcia Southwick wrote to tell me about Boomers Against Elder Abuse, a New Mexico organization fighting against abusive court-ordered guardianships.
“There is plenty of it going on in New Mexico but records are sealed here, and families gag ordered and made to sign no-sue agreements once the guardianship/conservatorship is over,” she wrote. Her group’s Facebook page lists nearly 350 elder guardianship horror stories from just about every state in the union. …
Several groups, nationwide, are working to change this awful system.
Among them, the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, and the Catherine Falk Organization. Catherine, daughter of the late actor, Peter Falk, of “Columbo” fame was denied visitation by her stepmother during her father’s last days. Now her group lobbies for a passage of a bill to remove barriers to family participation, while still providing ample protection for those in true need.
Catherine Falk says lawmakers in nearly two dozen states have responded positively to the need to change the status quo.
Change couldn’t come fast enough for Betty Winstanley.
Ever since her eldest son, Richard, took a family squabble to court in July 2014, she has had to live where her husband died – and without the family she so desperately craves.
Her estate was worth $1.9 million before her guardianship began in July 2014. Wonder what it’s down to now? …..
Diane Dimond: Elder Abuse a Shameful Racket in America:
Betty Winstanley is a well-spoken, elegant and wealthy 94-year-old widow, and as she told me from her room at the Masonic Village retirement facility in Elizabethtown, Pa., “I feel like I am in prison. My life is a living hell.”
Welcome to America’s twisted world of court-appointed guardianships for the elderly.
Quick backstory: Betty and her husband, Robert, were married for 72 years. They had three children, Richard, David and Betsy. For nearly seven years, the couple occupied a “lovely” apartment at the Masonic Village retirement home in Elizabethtown.
In early 2014, Betty, who uses a rolling walker to get around, said she felt faint. Seeing no staff nearby she lowered herself to the ground.
“They said I fell,” she told me. “But that is a bad, bad word around here. Once you fall they decide you aren’t capable of taking care of yourself anymore.”
Betty was sent to the medical section of the compound for rehabilitation after a small fracture was found.
Robert, a doctor of ophthalmology with a keen interest in aerospace medicine, took ill shortly after and was also transferred to the medical unit. Betty stayed with him but longed to return to her apartment.
“They wouldn’t let me,” Betty said.
Labeled as a resident who could no longer live independently, Betty was transferred to a smaller room where nurses could keep better track of her. Sadly, on June 16, 2014, Robert died of heart failure.
Within three weeks, the eldest Winstanley son, Richard, was in court claiming his mother needed a guardian to make decisions for her. Betty believes Richard was angry because she recently transferred her power of attorney from him to her other two children.
At this crucial initial hearing, Betty was without her hearing aids because the home collected them “for cleaning” and had not returned them. Still deep in grief, Betty was unable to understand the proceeding and her court-appointed lawyer never told her that she had the right to speak before the judge made a decision.
On July 17, 2014, Common Pleas Judge Jay J. Hoberg of Lancaster County, Pa., heard testimony from one doctor and one nurse from Masonic Village, and ruled that Betty was “a totally incapacitated person.”
This, despite the fact that two independent neuropsychologists who tested Betty declared she was of sound mind. Depressed? Understandably, yes. Affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? No.
Those conclusions didn’t seem to matter. Betty was appointed a guardian — two, in fact — and immediately felt cut off from the rest of the world. Her family visits were curbed, her checkbook was taken and she was restricted from leaving the Village campus. Her guardian, Patricia Maisano, did not even let her leave the campus at Christmas.
“They make me feel like a piece of protoplasm on a deserted island,” Betty told me. “I just want to move to an assisted-living home in Annapolis, Md., so I can be near David and Betsy. I have no family around here except Richard, who rarely comes to visit.”
Interestingly, Betty is not allowed to pay for her own lawyer from her $1.9 million estate funds. Her son, David, a flight attendant, told the court he has spent his life’s savings trying to help his mother escape the grasp of a legal system that is supposed to help the elderly……
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. …
See “My Parent’s Keeper” on Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson!
Sharyl: David took this video of his mom shortly after the guardianship, talking to her previous guardian’s helper.
Betty Winstanley: Why are you trying to damage my life by taking me away from all of my family and my friends?