Opinion: It’s time to reform probate court

Predatory for-profit conservators often take advantage of the elderly by charging huge fees and isolating them from the community.

In 2013, a former Berkeley resident, Greg Cooke, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. A physician deemed Mr. Cooke’s wife unable to care for him, and he was referred to a nursing home. A private conservator became aware of Mr. Cooke’s situation and began to petition for conservatorship. Mr. Cooke’s wife fought to retain her role as his caregiver, but ultimately, the Alameda County Probate Court assigned Mr. Cooke to the private conservator.  The conservator began billing Mr. Cooke $8,000 a month in the form of excessive fees and charges. The conservator refused to communicate with Mr. Cooke’s family regarding his condition. They refused his family visitation rights and recently sent a letter to Mr. Cooke’s wife stating that he was deceased. Yet, in spite of the letter, the conservator has continued to bill Mr. Cooke’s estate.

Our probate court system is failing seniors and people with disabilities such as Mr. Cooke. Predatory for-profit conservators are taking advantage of vulnerable community members through a system of conservatorship that is rife with elder abuse and civil-rights violations. This process is a part of a larger trend robbing families of color of their property and wealth. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act and it is time to address this problem.

A conservatorship in California is a probate court proceeding where a judge appoints a caretaker for an adult unable to care for him or herself.

Once a conservatorship is established, the caretaker (legally termed a ‘conservator’) has nearly total control over the person put under his or her care (a ‘conservatee’).

Conservators become responsible for every aspect of a conservatee’s life, including all property, possessions, finances, and even medical and personal decisions. For example, conservators choose the individual’s doctors, dictate whether or not relatives visit, and can even sell a conservatee’s house, and spend their money.

Conservatorship was designed to help families protect relatives unable to care for themselves. Mostly, it is used for seniors who cannot manage their own lives. Conservatorship is also used to assist adults who are disabled or the victims of catastrophic illness or accident.

Despite this noble intent, the system can fail the very people it was designed to protect. Professional conservators can petition for conservatorship of an individual, even without the knowledge and consent of the individual or their family. Judges often grant approvals for conservatorships with little scrutiny in hasty hearings.

Predatory conservators profit by billing the estates of the conservatees, charging exorbitant fees for miniscule, unnecessary, or fabricated tasks. These practices quickly deplete the wealth of the seniors and disabled persons who are supposed to be under their care. As a result, families are denied their inheritance and in the most tragic cases, seniors lose retirement savings and become homeless or financially dependent on relatives. In addition to financial predation, conservatees are often victims of abuse. There have been reports of these vulnerable individuals being confined and isolated, sexually violated, or physically abused.

Over the past decade, state legislators have passed various laws aimed at targeting this issue, most notably the Omnibus Conservatorship and Guardianship Reform Act of 2006. Since this reform, courts have been tasked with increased procedures for monitoring conservatorships. Regulations have also been imposed on professional conservators. Experts agree that California has decent probate laws on the books.

Yet, there continue to be reports of elder abuse and civil rights violations within the court system. Why? Because we have failed to allocate additional funding to enforce these critical laws that protect our most vulnerable citizens. Unless courts and court investigators receive sufficient funding, these laws will be nothing more than empty and meaningless statements of governmental principle.

There is a growing movement for probate court reform. The Berkeley City Council recently passed a council item requesting that District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and the Judicial Council investigate this matter. I call upon the Berkeley community to join and help advocate for our seniors. Please contact your state legislators, district attorney, and the Judicial Council to investigate abuses within our probate court system, enact positive changes and protect our families from this theft. Simply put, our elders deserve better.

Ben Bartlett is the Vice Mayor of Berkeley and a candidate for Assembly District 15.