– Laurie Roberts, Arizona Republic published April 27, 2011
At long last, Marie Long is one simple signature away from getting her wish. Well, one of her wishes anyway.
Undoubtedly, she would wish to have some of her money back, the $821,000 sucked up by guardians and lawyers appointed to protect her from unscrupulous types who might come after an old lady’s life savings.
Marie’s attorneys, who for years have worked for free, are appealing her case. They hope to force Maricopa County’s probate court to reconsider Commissioner Lindsay Ellis’ decision that it was “reasonable” for Marie’s so-called protectors to basically drain an estate once worth $1.3 million, leaving her penniless and dependent on taxpayers for support.
But Marie is 89. She can’t wait forever to see justice. She knows that, which brings me to wish No. 2.
“I would like,” she told me last fall, “that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
This week or next, Marie’s wish could be granted, assuming Gov. Jan Brewer signs Senate Bill 1499 – and assuming the county’s probate judges burn their well-worn rubber stamps and remember who it is that they are there to protect.
Credit the Arizona Legislature. In between birther bills and tea party license plates, when they weren’t belatedly disclosing Fiesta Bowl junkets or lopping poor people off the state’s health care rolls, our leaders did a really good thing last week.
They passed a probate bill aimed at better protecting vulnerable people and giving them a voice in what happens to them and their money. The vote was unanimous.
…Unanimous, to allow those under the protection of probate to see monthly bank statements rather than waiting more than a year — or in the case of Marie, three years — to find out how the people appointed to watch over their money have spent it.
…Unanimous, to make it easier for wards to rid themselves of fiduciaries they don’t like. For years, fiduciaries have basically run the court and if you tried to fire them, they got to spend a good chunk of your money fending you off. The bill makes it clear that judges can – and should – remove a fiduciary if it’s in a ward’s best interest.
…Unanimous, to reinforce a recent appellate court ruling that says what should have been obvious all along – that fiduciaries and lawyers can’t run up charges that do nothing to benefit the vulnerable person footing the bill.
That they can’t raise their rates without first disclosing it, as the Sun Valley Group did when CEO Peter Frenette quietly boosted his pay by 26 percent, to $145 an hour, even as Marie’s funds were running low. As attorney Scott Ferris did when he raised his rate by 18 percent to $325 an hour, without telling R.B. Sleeth, whose “protection” included 10 weeks locked away in an Alzheimer’s unit — never mind that he didn’t have Alzheimer’s.
…Unanimous, that judges must in all things consider the “best interest” of the protected person, as they were always supposed to do. Just in case judges forget that — again, that is — the soon-to-be new law repeats it 17 times.
The bill isn’t perfect. Parts of it wouldn’t be needed had probate commissioners acted like judges rather than friends of for-profit fiduciaries.
But SB 1499 is a good start on granting Marie’s wish, that never again should an old lady be “protected” into the poorhouse while a judge does nothing to stop it and in fact actually approves it.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Marie’s attorney Jon Kitchel. “If nothing else, it’s a reminder to the judges that they need to be making decisions …in their (the ward’s) best interest. I think that’s a good thing.”
It is a good thing and I never thought I’d be saying this to the Arizona Legislature, but…
Editor’s note: Roberts’ sister, Arizona Court of Appeals Chief Judge Ann Timmer, chairs a committee to review probate-court practices. The Republic is disclosing the relationship to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.
(Column published April 27, 2011, The Arizona Republic)