State Needs Better Oversight of Professional Conservators
As Americans’ life expectancy increases, so do the odds of needing help at some point, from cleaning house to paying bills. As many in Orange County who want to help are learning to their dismay, it can be difficult to decide when assistance is required and how best to give it.
The case of 89-year-old Glen Hawkins of Seal Beach demonstrates many of the dilemmas. Last February, not long after the death of his longtime wife sent him on a downward spiral, a Long Beach firm of caretakers was given virtually total control of Hawkins’ life. With no notice to him, no chance for him to object, a judge appointed the firm to manage Hawkins’ financial and personal affairs.
Since then, Hawkins’ relatives--he has no children--have rallied around him. But they and he have spent an estimated $10,000 in legal fees and travel costs to get him back in charge of his life.
There are no claims of wrongdoing in the Hawkins case. But his battle points out flaws in California’s system of conservatorship.
State law allows anyone to ask a court to have an individual declared incompetent and to have the petitioner become conservator. In most cases, that’s fine. The person initiating the court action is a husband or wife, son or daughter, a loved one with knowledge of the person needing help.
But it also is possible for a professional conservator to make the request. There are more than 40 professional conservators in Orange County and 80 in Los Angeles County registered with the Superior Courts. Lawyers say many of those conservators are individuals who have set up shop at home. There are no requirements to be a conservator; simply proclaim yourself one, register with the court, get fingerprinted, and you are one.
A criminal record is no bar. Even if the conservator is later disciplined or convicted by the local court, there is no system for informing other courts in the state. That should change.
The state regulates auto repair shops, appliance repairmen, beauty shops. But conservators, who control millions of dollars, are not regulated. Their actions are governed by their own ethics and oversight by the judge who appointed them. But in most cases, judges review conservatorships only once or twice a year. That’s too little scrutiny.
There should be minimum standards to be a conservator and requirements to post a bond. Most judges do require bonds, but it would be better to make it a condition of doing business rather than discretionary.
In Hawkins’ case, a social worker was unaware he had relatives, apparently because that’s what he said, although pictures of his kin decorate his home. There were also occasions when Hawkins was described as out of touch with reality.
Those are the harder cases, where an elderly person is fine sometimes but not at others. Caregivers, and conservators, need to respect a person’s wishes to do as much as possible for himself when he can. Moving in, taking over someone’s life, can hasten the arrival of a state of total dependence.
Hawkins’ relatives managed to persuade the judge to remove the professional conservatorship. In that respect, he was lucky. If he did not have relatives, or friends, willing to battle for him, it could have taken another year before he got a chance to tell the judge that he objected to not being allowed to handle his own affairs. And in a nursing home, given enough time, he might have deteriorated to the point where indeed he could not handle those affairs.
Those who need help in their old age should get as much as they require. But when they can make their own decisions, they should not be forced to accept more help than they want. They also deserve to get assistance from people who the state has determined meet minimum requirements.
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