Sharyl: Court-appointed guardianships for incapacitated adults can do a tremendous service protecting their assets, fielding family feuds, and making difficult decisions. But some elderly feel victimized by the very system tasked with protecting them. One estimate in 2013 found 1.5 million adults were under court-ordered guardianships controlling $273 billion in personal assets. Complaints appear to be growing but it's impossible to know for sure because there are no reliable statistics. Our cover story looks at a family claiming the guardianship system did more to hurt than help
Sharyl: This is video of Betty Winstanley, taken last year. She's a 95 year-old living in a Pennsylvania retirement community. When her husband died in 2014, she was left with a comfortable savings. But when her three children disagreed on whether she should manage her own affairs, Betty ended up in front of a judge. Liz and David Winstanley are two of her children and told us some of the claims they've outlined in court documents.
David Winstanley: She was taken to court without hearing aids...she didn't understand or hear what was going on. After the testimony, the judge ruled her incapacitated. And ordered a third party guardianship to watch over my mother.
Sharyl: And you firmly believe your mother's mental health is perfectly fine?
David Winstanley: Absolutely.
Sharyl: Their brother, who declined to speak with us, disagrees. And so did the court, which ordered a guardianship, meant for Betty's own good. But the arrangement is quickly depleting her life's savings and keeping her from moving to Maryland, closer to Liz and David. Betty's court-appointed guardian from a for-profit company controlled virtually every aspect of Betty's life...at Betty's own expense.
Sharyl: What are some of the expenses that you've seen or that you think are exorbitant?
David Winstanley: My brother called the guardian, talked to her for some amount of time. And there's a bill showing $900 for that phone call.
Sharyl: Your mother had to pay for that? David: Yes. Sharyl: What kind of rate does she get paid?
Liz Winstanley: She initially invoiced at $300. $300 an hour for her services. And then she had a nurse. She was charging $150 for, I believe?
Sharyl: To be clear, this is on top of the care your mom already gets?
Liz Winstanley: Exactly.
Sharyl: In assisted living, that she's paying for?
Liz Winstanley: Yes.
Sharyl: Invoices show the guardian charged Betty. $180 for an email sent to the family on Mother's Day. More than $400 for conversations about "ownership of a French horn." And more than two thousand dollars to discuss Christmas visits. In one five-month period, guardian bills came to more than $93-thousand dollars. After the family complained about the $300 an hour rate, the guardian refunded about half of her fees and reduced her rate to $150 an hour. When Betty's children challenged the guardianship, the guardians' fees were paid from Betty's account. Court records show in one seven-month period those legal fees added up to more than $57 thousand. We weren't able to talk to Betty ourselves. The guardian won't allow her to speak to the media.
Betty Winstanley: You have me here and I don't know what you're trying to do to me.
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?
Sharyl: Betty's current estate guardian wouldn't agree to an interview but issued a statement saying the company is "committed to serving the best interest of its clients" and has "a high-quality standard of practice and operates under nationally accepted guardianship regulations." In court filings and a letter, the guardian has blamed David and Liz for running up costs by challenging their mother's guardianship. The courts have repeatedly supported the actions of Betty's guardians. Today, Betty lives under strict, guardian-imposed restrictions intended for her own good.
Sharyl: Can your mom leave anytime she wants?
David Winstanley: No.
Sharyl: Can your mom live where ever she wants?
David Winstanley: No.
Sharyl: Can your mom go to a doctor whenever she thinks she needs to see a doctor?
David Winstanley: No. She has to go through the guardian to get permission to do that.
Sharyl: And every time she goes to the guardian, it costs more money?
David Winstanley: Yes.
Sally Humre: Very frequently there are other sides to the story.
Sharyl: Sally Hurme is with the National Guardianship Association.
Sally: That's why it's important for the courts to be there to exercise their supervision and their monitoring, give both sides the opportunity to air their concerns in a court of law rather than in the media.
Sharyl: She says most guardians do a competent, caring job...some as volunteers with no pay at all.
Sally Hurme: Also, very frequently, there are branches in the family. The family dynamics can be very much a part of the dissatisfaction that we hear about sometimes in the press.
Sharyl: David and Liz estimate the guardian process cost $1.9 million from Betty's estate in less than three years, and that she has less than $40,000 left in cash. After complaints from the family, the court recently appointed Betty's attorney to share in guardianship decisions.
Betty Winstanley: I don't know who to go to. I'm desperate. Do you understand how I feel?
Sharyl: Can we assume most guardianships don't go wrong? That people are pretty happy with the outcome?
Sally Hurme: Absolutely. I think the best we know is that the great majority of guardianships are helping the individual.
Sharyl: David and Liz continue to appeal to the judge in their mother's case. And each time they do, it costs Betty since she's forced to pay her guardian's legal fees.
David Winstanley: It can happen to anybody. A neighbor can report you as incapacitated and take you into a guardianship. Friends, family members-- attorneys, accountants, it can happen very easily. And it happens quickly. And it's nearly impossible to break a guardianship once it's established, especially through a state.
Liz Winstanley: It's one thing for us, as the children, to watch mum going through this. And it's another for her. She is absolutely devastated that she is an "incapacitated" person.
Betty Winstanley: It's just something that's just unreal.
Sharyl: Just a few days ago, the court replaced Betty's personal guardian. But there's no word on whether the new guardian will allow her to move to Maryland now that her savings are nearly gone.