Minnie Monoff had a guardian, a court-appointed attorney and a judge who were supposed to look out for her and protect her, but to her it seemed no one would listen.
She had recovered from a stroke and returned home. She wanted control of her life, she said, but her guardian wouldn't give it to her.
Instead, she said, the friend who had been named her guardian got an emergency court order and had her sedated by a nurse, taken from home by the county sheriff and placed in a nursing home.
Her court-appointed attorney waived a hearing on the order without consulting Monoff, in part out of concern for the 82-year-old woman's health in the summer heat.
"You don't know what a sick feeling I had, to leave my home, where I was happy and taking care of myself."
"It's rotten. It's no good," she said of her guardianship.
Five weeks of Monoff's pleas eventually overturned the guardianship. What began as a plan to protect her affairs while she recovered from the stroke became a nightmare.
Monoff's case, while rare, poignantly shows how courts, charged with overseeing guardianship cases, can ignore their wards. The result can be costly to the elderly, both in terms of their money and their lives.
The Associated Press investigation into probate courts' handling of such guardianships found systems that have lapsed into paper-shuffling routines with few protections. With alarming frequency, funds that represent life savings are exposed to mishandling, abuse and theft.
The few safeguards sometimes fail or may be ignored by the courts, who routinely take the word of a guardian or attorney without independent checking or full hearings.
The results leave the 300,000 to 400,000 people supposedly protected by guardianships with little protection at all.
"We're going to have to change our court system and be watchdogs over these judges and lawyers," an angry Monoff says now.
A survey of more than 2,200 cases, chosen at random from courts in all 50 states, showed that 48% of the guardians were delinquent in annual reports of how they spent their wards' money--a lapse that violates the law. Without the annual accountings, the courts are blind to theft or negligence.
Even rarer are reports on the health and well-being of wards. They could be found in only 16% of the files.
Few states have systems for checking on guardians. Only California has state-paid court investigators who periodically visit the wards; other court examiners audit how the wards' money is spent.
Through checking of court files and extensive interviews in all 50 states, the AP encountered numerous examples of what can happen when courts don't keep track of elderly wards and their money:
- In 1985, a Chicago social worker found an 83-year-old woman lying in a urine-soaked bed, suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration. The woman, whose guardian was her daughter, was left in the care of grandchildren who, the social worker said, fed her once a day, called her "Fido" and spent her Social Security payments. Despite their denials, a judge ruled that the grandchildren had "failed in their duty" and placed the woman with the public guardian.
- A Pittsburgh accountant, guardian of an 82-year-old woman, spent $156,202 of her $161,968 estate in 22 months. Among the reported expenses were a $24,175 guardianship fee and a $20,000 commission for investing $45,000 of her money in his own business venture. The court ordered him to repay the estate $123,000.
- A Cincinnati man lost $7,000 in two years under guardianship, including $3,500 in payroll checks and two bars of silver allegedly taken from a safety deposit box. The guardian's bond, required by the court to protect the ward's assets, had been forged. That guardianship was dismissed in 1985.
Judges and court clerks in many places acknowledge that they have little control.
"We don't have many resources. Once in a while, I'll yank one (a case file) and audit it," said Chris Tountas, a Phoenix, Ariz., probate court commissioner who receives information on 60 guardianships a day but audits only 12 cases a year.
"Does the court open files and look? I don't think that happens unless a problem is brought to the attention of the court by a family member or creditor," said Michael J. Carbo, a former probate court master in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
While most guardianships are properly administered, 13% of the more than 2,200 files examined by AP reporters contained no reports or accountings--not a document filed after the granting of the guardianship.
Court clerks, the busy keepers of county records, often were at a loss to explain what had happened to the ward, the guardian and the estate, or money. Indeed, in many of the counties examined by the AP, court officials acknowledged that they had no idea how many guardianship cases they had.
"There are only two of us here. We don't have time for all that," a Collier County, Fla., clerk said.
In Ada County, Ida., a clerk joined an AP reporter to look at files. They pulled 12 cases that contained nothing but the orders granting guardianship. In each case, the clerk determined that the ward had died, yet those guardianships had never been closed and the final accountings never made, as required by law.
No Financial Reports
Washington's Spokane County uses interns to check guardianship files, but of 13 files picked at random in the courthouse, nine were missing financial reports or should have been closed because the wards had died.
"That's surprising to me," said Robert Austin, Spokane County Superior Court commissioner. "It sounds like they are not looking at the files very carefully or very often."
One Upstate New York file opened in 1980 and involving an estate valued at $150,000 six years into the guardianship contained this notation: "This file made up 11-20-86--original file seems to be missing." Among the missing material was information on the sale of the ward's property and the original worth of the estate.
In 1982, a special grand jury in Miami found a 92-year-old woman without relatives or friends who was living "in squalor in an adult congregate living facility since closed for its intolerable living conditions."
The woman had a bank account of $150,000 and her guardian was the owner of the adult home--a conflict that violated Florida law, the grand jury said. The guardian hadn't filed a report on the woman for two years.
"The thing that scares the hell out of me," said Frank Repensek, executive director of the Guardianship Program of Dade County, a Miami nonprofit group, "is that people are acting as guardian without any kind of supervision."
'The Way It Is'
Said Linda Weeks, a guardianship expert of the Florida Bar Assn. disability committee: "There's the way it should be, and there's the way it is--the way you can get away with."
AP reporters found cases of questionable spending, usually approved by judges who routinely sign guardianship papers that cross their desks.
Most statutes require that the money in a ward's estate be spent for the benefit of the ward. Yet the guardian of a Kansas World War I veteran, for example, ran through $112,000 in a little more than a year. He paid for a car and car repairs for a relative, spent $1,800 at a hotel in San Francisco and made a loan of $2,000 to a relative who built kitchen cabinets.
The Veterans Administration challenged that case, and after a judge investigated, the guardian was removed in 1981. The man was restored to legal competency but his money was never repaid.
Payments to car dealers were found in files in South Carolina and Texas, even though wards are not allowed to drive. Guardians financed vacations out of their wards' estates in several files, and some guardians made gifts to themselves of wards' money.
Some observers said that guardians may justify gifts and lavish spending because they will likely inherit the money anyway. Some files even included notes from guardians explaining such spending as a way to avoid inheritance taxes. More than 4% of the files studied included such gifts.
"We haven't been able to convince (judges) that some of these dear sons and daughters don't have the best interests of their old, gray-haired mothers and fathers at heart," said Jim West, a legal aide attorney in Oklahoma who specializes in law for the elderly.
Some judges say that cases of abuse and neglect are rare, that the system runs well except for a few bad apples. Some, such as Denver Probate Judge Field Benton, say that budget restraints limit court supervision.
"We only require (financial) reports on guardianship cases, and I'm scared about that. That's not to denigrate (the importance of) a person's living condition, but I've got to choose," Benton said.
In Pennsylvania, where the presumption of good faith is woven so tightly into the system that even annual financial accountings are optional, the counsel to the Legislature's Joint State Government Commission challenged the idea of formal safeguards.
"Even with the scoundrels, the system works remarkably well," said William Nast. "We wouldn't want to see that changed. If you had a guardian guarding the guardian, who's going to guard the guardian guarding the guardian?"
Others, however, ask how, if so many cases get so little supervision, can judges have any idea of what's going on with their wards.
"I think it needs closer monitoring--even our guardians feel that way," said Cathy Kimbrel, elderly-services administrator in Fort Lauderdale and organizer of a volunteer guardianship program.
California's tough system of court investigators has caught some conservators using estate money to start businesses and pay for personal car insurance. Some have been caught physically abusing elderly wards.
"I shudder to think what we'd do without them," Fresno County Superior Court Judge Eugene W. Krum said of the investigators.
Court officials point to the requirement that guardians be bonded against theft or misuse of a ward's money. Still, in 31% of the cases the AP surveyed, the bond premium came from the ward's estate.
The bonds seem to offer little protection against wrongdoing.
Dan Kirby, corporate counsel for Western Surety Co., a Sioux Falls, S.D., firm that has written 6.5 million guardianship bonds in the last three years, said his firm has a 20% loss rate on such bonds.
"Our industry has found in recent years that all guardians are having more trouble keeping their hands off the money of the people they are supposed to protect," he said.
Kirby said that attempts to recover missing money seldom succeed. "We either can't find the guardian or, when we do, they are broke," he said.
For Minnie Monoff, now back home raising chickens in Greeley, receiving Meals on Wheels and visits from friends and neighbors, the feeling of being locked in by a system that wouldn't listen to her was terrifying.
The court order removing her from her home was signed only a few hours before the judge received a letter from her sisters opposing the guardianship. Her pleas to be restored to legal competency and released from the guardianship were ignored until an elderly-affairs caseworker questioned her confinement.
"Like a criminal--that's the way they treated me, and that's the way I felt," she said. "I don't trust these courts. . . . How can one person help yourself when you get a gang like that against you?"
Lydia Cunningham, the friend who became Monoff's guardian, said she petitioned the court to place Monoff in a nursing home because her ward locked herself in her house and refused to come out. Monoff said she did that because she was angry at Cunningham over the guardianship.
"I'll never help anybody again," Cunningham said. "I've helped other people too, but I don't do nothing no more. That's the last time, and it will stay the last time."
The court-appointed lawyer, Herman Loepp, the part-time Anderson County attorney, said he believed Cunningham's petition and, considering the heat of the 1984 summer, saw no need to talk with Monoff.
"I tried to do what was best for the person," Loepp said. "Is it better to be out there in 100-degree days? You don't know how well the person is taking care of herself, and you've got this verified petition that she's not."
Monoff's case, Loepp said, "just won't die. You try to do what you think is right, and the lady that you tried your best to help thinks you tried to stab her in the back. All I can say is I never tried to do that. I tried to represent her the best that I could, and I still think I did her a hell of a job."
Monoff says the ease with which she was forced into a nursing home raises a frightening warning to other senior citizens.
"There's not many able to fight like me. A lot of people would just take it and say, 'Well, I can't do anything about it,"' she said. "I wouldn't want anybody to go through what I went through."