There are many ways elderly, sick and disabled people can wind up in a court-appointed guardianship, where a complete stranger wields total control over their lives and assets. Some are identified as “incapacitated” by paid caregivers. Others are turned in by greedy relatives or rapacious attorneys.
But members of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse who spoke out last week on Capitol Hill agree that once loved ones are placed in a guardianship, they are stripped of all their civil and constitutional rights, and death is often the only way out.
That was the case for 72-year-old Yvonne Sarhan, the widowed mother of Miami physician Dr. Robert Sarhan, who was declared “incapacitated” at a secret ex parte (“one side only”) hearing.
Guardians helped themselves to her $2 million estate while a Florida probate judge ignored her son’s desperate pleas to take her off the schizophrenia drug Seroquel, which is contraindicated for the elderly because it causes electrical disturbances in the heart.
“The word ‘incapacitated’ has no medical meaning,” Dr. Sarhan told The Washington Examiner. “Two board-certified neurologists both agreed my mother was competent. She was a bit forgetful, but she was still able to go to the grocery store and church.”
Yet guardianship continued even after Dr. Sarhan produced documented evidence that the same lawyer representing his mother also represented the court-appointed guardian who was billing her estate.
“She was murdered, and the judges were absolutely complicit in the fraud,” Dr. Sarhan said. “But nobody in government will touch this with a 10-foot pole, and if you fight them, they come after you.”
An auditor and member of Virginia’s Commonwealth Council on the Aging, Brenda Kelley said she has spent $100,000 of her own money fighting the guardians who barred her, an only child, from seeing her mother, Bertha, while they drained her million-dollar estate and negligently allowed her childhood home to be sold at a tax lien sale for a mere $29,000.
Steven Nero charges that the court-appointed guardians of his mother, Viola, a retired Washington, D.C., teacher, hired unlicensed “caregivers” after she fell in the home she shared with her son and husband.
Nero says his mother is inappropriately being held captive in an Alzheimer’s facility that charges $6,000 per month. “She is being illegally deprived of her civil and constitutional rights even though there was no evidence on the record that she was ever evaluated as ‘incapacitated’— it was all hearsay. I’m a lawyer and even I can’t get her out,” a frustrated Nero told us.
Even the young or middle-aged can become “legal ghosts” by court order, as 50-year-old Nashville songwriter Danny Tate described his status after his estranged brother was named his conservator during an ex parte hearing in 2007.
Tate, who has admitted abusing alcohol and drugs, was never charged with any crime. His conservatorship was finally terminated in September, minus the fortune he earned writing music for Rick Springfield and Nashville legends.
“All of the country’s wealth eventually passes through the probate courts,” Tate pointed out. “The problem is that probate courts are designed for liquidation, not conservation, but it all gets adjudicated in the same court. All the attorneys are getting paid and nobody wants to get off the gravy train.”
Bob Teich uncovered compelling evidence of collusion, conflict of interest, forgery and fraud in the San Diego Probate Court — including the guardian’s refusal to release his minor son’s IRS returns.
After 10 years, the younger man’s million-dollar inheritance is almost gone, but none of the dozens of attorneys and government officials Teich contacted will take on a guardianship system so corrupt that for many Americans, the grave is their only escape.
Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Washington Examiner’s local opinion editor.