As people age and their physical and mental health declines, conservatorships are often considered. If you’re not careful, the entire estate can be spent on management costs and abuse can occur. There are things a family can do for better outcomes.
Today’s guest is Diane Dimond. Diane is the author of four books and is a veteran investigative reporter for radio, TV, and print. Crime and justice is her preferred genre and she broke the Michael Jackson story twice. Currently abusive guardianship and conservatorships are her focus.“Let’s make guardianship or conservatorship harder to establish.” - Diane Dimond Click To Tweet
- [0:55] – Diane shares her background as an investigative reporter.
- [2:48] – Her recent book We’re Here to Help: When Guardianship Goes Wrong is all about the possible pitfalls and risks of conservatorships.
- [5:15] – Diane explains how guardianship and conservatorship is granted.
- [6:21] – In a lot of cases, Diane has found that judges assume if conservatorship is being asked for that the family is dysfunctional.
- [8:59] – Guardians are paid out of the ward’s estate and many charge an outrageous amount of money.
- [10:31] – The most public conservatorship that went wrong was Britney Spears’s. But some celebrity guardianship scenarios have been beneficial.
- [12:29] – Diane firmly believes that guardianship needs to be harder to establish.
- [14:06] – Anybody can initiate a petition.
- [17:14] – Once it is in front of a judge, it can become a catch-22 situation.
- [19:11] – Every state is different and many are starting to pass some reform. Florida in particular is a terrible state for this system.
- [20:42] – SEAR is a very useful resource if you are in an abusive guardianship situation.
- [23:07] – It is almost impossible for the ward to make any decisions.
- [25:50] – It is you against a whole system.
- [27:52] – Unfortunately there is a lot of criminality that is possible.
- [29:51] – It isn’t impossible for abusers to be caught and punished, but it is not common.
- [31:59] – There are alternatives to guardianships that really should be considered.
- [34:21] – If these abusers were punished, they would go somewhere else and commit a different crime, but they would at least leave these vulnerable people alone.
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- We’re Here to Help: When Guardianship Goes Wrong by Diane Dimond
- Diane Dimond Website
Diane, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast today.
Hey, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
You're very welcome. Can you tell myself and the audience a little bit about who you are and what you do?
I'm an investigative reporter. I've been in the business for a long time. I started in radio. I'm originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I left Albuquerque and went to work for National Public Radio in Washington, DC. I read the newscast and wrote the newscast for All Things Considered for many years.
I've covered Capitol Hill, I've covered the White House. I've not covered the Supreme Court so much, the State Department a little bit. I have a good working knowledge of how our government works and does not work.
As I approached a certain age, I said, “If I'm ever going to get into TV, I better try.” So I did, and my first TV job was at WCBS in New York City, which was a little daunting, because I really had no idea what I was doing. Since then, I've done a lot of different television jobs.
I worked for the syndicated show Hard Copy. I have worked for Court TV. I did a quick little stint right after 9/11 anchoring on Fox, simply because all of their talent had been shipped abroad to cover the story that way. I wasn't there very long, and then I went to Court TV.
I'll tell you, TV and radio have changed so much. I'm a fact-based person. I started writing a syndicated column about 14 years ago all about crime and justice. That's my genre, crime and justice issues.
I realized if you're in print, it's much more challenging. First of all, but people who read tend to be much more intellectual and much more thoughtful. I just liked that genre so much. Since then, I've written four books, and the latest one is this, We're Here to Help: When Guardianship Goes Wrong. It's just out.
Awesome, and that's what we're going to talk about today. Can you describe what is the definition of guardianship?
It's confusing. I wonder if it isn't deliberately confusing sometimes. Guardianship is called conservatorship in some states. Your state, in California, they call it conservatorship. It's the same thing. It is the court ordering outside help for a vulnerable person, someone who can't take care of themselves or is somehow at risk in their life.
To make matters a little more complicated, within the system, there is a guardian who takes care of the person's personal issues. Where do they live? What doctors do they see? They pay the little household bills.
But then if there's a lot of money involved—and in many of these cases, there are millions of dollars involved—then a conservator is appointed. It might be two different people in charge of the so-called ward of the court, or it might just be one called a plenary guardian, and that guardian takes care of everything. That's what happens.
When someone is put into guardianship—and we can talk about how that happens—they immediately lose their civil rights because they're declared incapacitated. All of their money, estate, property, holdings, heirlooms, investments, everything is confiscated by the court.The system has grown to the point where every year, state courts—because this is all run by each individual state—confiscate $50 billion worth of wards' property/estate. -Diane Dimond Click To Tweet
The system has grown to the point where every year, state courts—because this is all run by each individual state—confiscate $50 billion worth of wards' property/estate. Every single year, $50 billion. That's a lot of money floating out there. I'm sad to say that it has attracted the criminal element in many instances.
Let's talk about one when it goes right first so we can understand what the system should look like when it's operating. What are the circumstances when a person goes under conservatorship or guardianship?
We're a benevolent society. When someone needs help—they're elderly, maybe memory issues, Alzheimer's, if they're disabled living with a disability of some sort, if someone's had a traumatic brain injury or a stroke—a petition is filed with a court that's called an equity court, it doesn't matter. The petition is filed by someone to the court saying, “This person needs some protection. I want to help them, so please give me the legal means to do that. Anoint me, appoint me to be their legal guardian or conservator,” depending on the state.
That is a wonderful system, and we need it. It works really, really well when a loving, trusting family member is named as the guardian. An adult daughter is appointed to be her mother's conservator. Mom’s a widow, she's losing it a little bit. That's when it works really well.
Unfortunately, I've discovered—I've been writing about this in my syndicated column and other places for about eight years—that many, many judges figure that, “If a case comes to my courtroom, your family must be dysfunctional. You can't figure out what to do amongst yourselves. I'm not going to appoint you as the guardian. I'm going to appoint a court-sanctioned stranger to take over your loved one's life.”
Sometimes that works fine, too. There are lots of compassionate guardians and conservators out there, but there are a lot that are not compassionate and conservative. They have dollar signs in their eyes, if I can be frank, and that's where the problems happen.
How does the judge choose who they're appointing?
It's really up to the judge. I must say, no disrespect to the court—I have great respect for cops, courts, and judges—but these judges are not trained in these cases. They don't really understand what happens after you bang the gavel, put your stamp on a guardianship, and establish it.
They're in a unique position. It's not a criminal trial; it's not a civil trial. It's equity court. There's no trial, there's no due process guaranteed, there are often no witnesses called. He or she, the judge, gets a piece of paper saying, “This person needs a guardian.” They're busy. They get this from an officer of the court. Some lawyer gives it to him and they go, “Oh, let's see. Well, the son is stealing money from mom, and nobody's taking mom to the doctor. Wow. OK. Guardianship.”
I found that many of those petitions are either way exaggerated or contain complete lies designed to get the guardianship in process. Once the guardianship is in process, the lawyers, the guardians, the conservators, something called a court visitor who reports back to the judge, the medical people involved, all work together. Nobody tattles on any bad behavior that's happening because then they would be excluded from the process and not get to charge the fees. You see, that's the point. Everybody is paid for by the wards of the state. Some of these guardians charge up to $600 an hour. Your estate can go pretty quickly.
Are there any public cases that people would say, “Oh, OK, that's what was going on in this public case?”
Britney Spears. If you look at Britney Spears—and I have a chapter in the book with some new revelations about her case—she was under guardianship for almost 14 years. I don't profess to know what may or may not be wrong with her. I do watch her TikTok and her X, formerly known as Twitter. I see this 41 year old woman in scantily clad dancing on a pole and I think, “Oh, this isn't quite healthy.”
She finally got her conservatorship terminated because, frankly, there was this big movement—the Free Britney Movement—that brought it to the headlines. She got to go in front of the judge, which is rare. Wards are often not even seen by the judge before the guardianship or conservatorship begins.
It was such heartfelt testimony. I remember it was over the telephone, and it was at the end of the pandemic. She finally got out of guardianship, but most people don't. That was the most public.
In the book, there are a lot of instances you may not realize with celebrities who've been guardianized. Some of them worked out really well. Peter Falk, the actor, Glen Campbell, the musician, David Merrick, the Broadway producer. All of these people were put into guardianship, and they're more than that. Casey Kasem, the famous radio personality. At the end of their life, a guardianship was established, and it allowed their children from a previous marriage to come and visit them.
Guardianship can be a good thing, but that's not what this book is about. It's about the billions and billions of dollars over the decades that have been quite literally stolen from wards of the court. Nobody really keeps track of where the money's going, what's happening. They're supposed to file an audit every year. Here's where my ward’s money went. Many of them don't file audits for years and years. Many of them, when they do, there's no one to look at the audit.
The audits aren't audited, so to speak.
I guess there are two paths we can go down here and some additional discussion. How can we do this properly? What needs to be done? And how can we protect our relatives from it being done improperly? Or the system abused?
The first thing is, let's make guardianship or conservatorship harder to establish. This was the most startling thing to me. Anybody can go to a lawyer and say, “That person over there, they need help.” They need to be guardianized when maybe they don't need to be guardianized. There are plenty of lawyers around who will write up these petitions for guardianship.
Now, what do I mean by that? Anybody can do it. I have a case in New York that I'm watching, an 84-year-old woman who lived in her rent-controlled apartment for 50 years. The landlord got the woman guardianized, got her out of the apartment so they could charge more rent in that apartment.
There's a mechanic in Texas. This was a case from several years ago. An elderly man who had classic cars, did a lot of work on the cars, and the man owed him $30,000–$40,000 and wasn't paying. The man had a little dementia. The millionaire had dementia.
The mechanic went to a lawyer and said, “What should I do?” The lawyer said, “Oh, let's just guardianize him. You can be the guardian.” The mechanic became the guardian for a multimillionaire. It was stunning. The family of the millionaire took about two years and lots and lots of money to fight that. They finally got that one terminated.
Anybody can file a petition, initiate a petition, including the lawyers. I found many cases where people go to a lawyer and say, “I need to change my power of attorney designation, or I want to add so and so to my will.” The lawyer talks to them, gets to know them, and gets all their information. How many children do you have? Where's your money going now? And then the lawyer can go and file for guardianship on that person.
I know it sounds stunning. People think that can't happen in America, but it does. I found cases where lawyers initiated these things in Florida, Rhode Island, Ohio, Arizona, California, New Mexico. It's happening all across the country. I'm sorry I went far afield, but what can we do to help people?
First of all, as a family, get together. You have a person who is at risk, elderly, has a little dementia or has a disability, and you're worried about what might happen to them. Get everybody together before it becomes an emergency, and talk about it. If there's dissension, don't go to a lawyer right away. Go to family mediation. First of all, it costs you a lot less, and maybe it'll work.
Again, a lot of guardianships started after family squabbles. Realize that the person you're hurting is the person you're trying to protect. If you're fighting over your elderly, widowed mother, and it gets to court, and there's a stranger guardian who's got dollar signs in their eyes and fleecing your mother, she's the one who's hurt the most. So get together as a family.
If you are an elderly person like me, get your camera out. Everybody's got a cell phone these days. Record yourself saying what you want. What do you want? Do you want a guardian? Which of your adult children do you want to be your guardian? Do you never want a guardian?
Do you have enough money to just hire 24/7 care to come into your home? Who's your power of attorney? What are your intentions? What do you want out of life? Put it on videotape, because that, once introduced into court, is pretty compelling. Judges then have to sit back and say, “Oh, maybe I shouldn't just rubber-stamp guardianship.”
How do you get that into court if evidence isn't required in court for guardianship?
It's hard. Lots of judges will say to family members who show up after the guardianship has been established, because that's mostly done in private behind a closed door. You have to have a lawyer to talk to them. Now, you have to hire a lawyer to talk to the judge, because he won't let you talk to that person. That's what you'd have to do.
Another Pandora's Box, good luck trying to find a lawyer who's going to take on another lawyer in front of a judge who's probably a lawyer. It's a catch-22 situation, and every state is trying to pass some reform laws. These guardians, when a family complains, they can go back to the judge and do it all the time and say, “That daughter, Sally, she's a problem. She's really upsetting her mother. I need to isolate this elderly person from that adult child.” So Sally is banned, and mama could die all alone because Sally has been banned by the guardian. That's how powerful they are.
Again, it's family harmony at all costs, if you can achieve it at all. How can you get your video in? You have to hire a lawyer. It's just terrible. When it's good, it's really, really good, because a family guardian knows exactly what this person wants. They know their hopes and their dreams or what their bucket list is, but a stranger doesn't know any of that. If you let a stranger take over, and I'm telling you it's happening more and more, family members are not being appointed as guardians. So beware.
You were talking about states working to put some more guardrails on this. Is there a national movement behind the legislation changes in the states? Is it really just piecemeal, people talking to their legislature and saying, “This is what happened to my family member. We need to change this,” and then there's going to be this patchwork of vastly different rules around this? Or is there this unified push of getting consistent rules?
A little bit of both, but mostly, it's a mishmash of different laws in different states. Some states have many more problems. Florida is a terrible state for guardianship because there are so many rich elderly people who retire there. So many targets for the unscrupulous.
States are passing reform laws against isolating the ward. You have to let the family come in and visit. Some are trying to get caps on how much can be charged in court fees. Again, when you have a guardian, a guardian ad litem, conservator, a court visitor, and they all charge fees, your estate can go poof right away. Then they put you in a home, they sell your house, they put you in a home, and the taxpayers take on that burden.
Yes, there are states that are passing these little band-aid laws, as I call them, but they're putting them on a big open bleeding wound called guardianship, and there's not one national law that regulates it. There are no federal laws about this at all, because it's a state's issue.
There is a massive push by a group called CEAR (Center for Estate Administration Reform). It's run by a married couple, Rick and Terry Black. Her father was put into a horrible guardianship in Nevada.
I urge anybody who's listening to this—“This is happening in my family, what can I do?” You can find CEAR on Facebook. Rick and Terry Black have counseled more than 5000 families across the country on how to work it. What do you do? How do you save money not getting a lawyer when you have to get a lawyer?
They're warriors in this fight. They're on Capitol Hill all the time. They go to different states. They were at the Free Britney Movement. Yes, there is a nationwide push, grassroots push, for this, but there are a lot of scattered groups that, frankly, are sniping each other. There's also the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse (NASGA). It's run by a wonderful woman named Elaine Renoire. She's also on Facebook.
There are resources out there. On my website, dianedimond.com, I have a whole section called Guardianship Central. There are resources there, other books that you can read, articles, and I give you a glossary so that you can understand the terms, because they come at you fast and furious. It's like, “What's a court visitor? What's a guardian ad litem? I already have a guardian.” I will explain that for you.
I got some frequently asked questions there. Write to me. I'll help you out if I can. I'll get you to the right person, who I hope can help you get out of an abusive guardianship if that's what's happening in your family.
You used the Britney example. How hard is it for the person who had guardianship of them to petition to get out of it? Is that basically nearly impossible?
Yes, because they have been declared incapacitated. They don't have civil rights. In most states, I think there are only three that you get to have your own lawyer. You can hire your own lawyer even though you're incapacitated, but you can't hire your own lawyer as the ward.
I was stunned when the Britney Spears judge allowed her to speak directly to the court. That's unheard of. How hard is it? It's almost impossible. You’ve got to get a family member to petition the court, because they are not incapacitated, and you are.
The unified family friend is the best route if there's a conservatorship by someone other than the family.
Yeah. I don't mean to speak ill of lawyers, but there are a lot of lawyers out there who operate within their system. That's going to be the first thing that they suggest to you. Oh, it's a panacea. Go for guardianship. It’s perfect because then you'll be in charge, except you probably won't be.
That's a scary thought. I think it's one of those anecdotes. Whenever there are lawyers involved, the only people that end up the benefit are the lawyers, not to speak ill of lawyers.
Exactly. Not that there's anything wrong with lawyers. That's right. A lot of people say to me, “Why doesn't it change? Why doesn't the state legislature pass laws or revamp the whole guardianship system?” The answer is, lobbyists, lawyer lobbyists, guardian lobbyists, hospital lobbyists.
Lots of times, when there's a person in a hospital, their insurance is about to run out, a hospital will go for guardianship of the person. Even though there's family around, the hospital petitions for guardianship to get them out of there to free up the bed. Hospitals, nursing homes, lawyers, conservators, guardianship companies, there are a whole franchise firms now that are doing guardianship work.
They're all at the state legislatures knocking on the door saying, “Hey, the status quo is what it needs to just remain as the status quo. It's not us. We're here to help these people. Their families are so dysfunctional. They can't get along.” In some instances, that's true. But the guardian lobbyists want the lawmakers to think it's all the fault of the families, when in fact, it's much more complicated than that.
I think that's true of any issue. Whoever has the most financial stake in the issue is going to do the most lobbying on whatever Capitol Hill it is.
Right. You could be a multimillionaire, and your family fights the guardianship, but realize it's you against a whole system. The judges get campaign contributions from the conservators, the guardians, and lawyers. The conservator always picks the same guardian to work with, and they always pick the same hospital. It's such a tight-knit group.
Again, they're not all corrupt. They don't all have money on their mind. But there are cadres of them in every single state that I looked at over eight years of investigation. They have conferences. They have national conferences where they all get together and give each other tips.
Here's an example of that. You're a guardian, your wards are elderly, they start to have dementia, and you've gone through all their cash. Now you go back to the judge and you say, “Your honor, I have to sell their house. I know it's in their will that the house is supposed to go to brother Randy, but I need money to take care of this person.”
The wheel gets busted, and the irrevocable trust is completely nullified by these judges. At these conferences of guardians, there is a movement now where, “Hey, you know what? You should become a real estate agent as well, and then you can sell that house.”
And you can get the commission on the sale of the house on top of the fees for everything.
The fees you're getting for being a guardian, so you're a guardian real estate agent. I'm seeing a lot of that now happen. There's a judge in Florida who's under investigation right now. It's a widely reported story out there in Polk County. The judge has been buying up these houses that were wards of the court's houses for way below market value. $450,000 house, he gets it for $300,000. $300,000 house, he gets it for $96,000. Anyway, you get my drift.
There's definitely a criminal element that can invade these circumstances.
And there is, as you would say, easy prey out there. People who worked hard all their lives, saved their money, they got their wills in place, they got their trust in place, they got a daughter who loves them dearly and wants to take care of them in their old age, and poof, it's all gone.
I wish there was a nice, clean, “Well, here's the one thing that you can do to prevent this from happening.” It sounds like there are a number of things you could do to mitigate the risk, but you can't entirely eliminate unscrupulous individuals.
It's like you can't stop people from calling you on the phone with a Nigerian scam, or emailing you about the fact that if you just send me $500, you won a big lottery in the UK. You can't control the scams and the fraudsters out there, but I'll tell you what can be done. Prosecutors can start prosecuting these people.
There are so many cases I ran into—you can't even believe—where the person is charged—here's an example—200 counts of fraudulent activity, abuse of an elderly person, neglect, et cetera. By the time it gets to court, it's one case, one count, or two counts of abuse of an elderly person, for example, and they get six months probation. If we really want to stop this, start punishing the predators in the system.If we really want to stop this, start punishing the predators in the system. -Diane Dimond Click To Tweet
Sometimes that happens. There's a guardian in Albuquerque who got 47 years in prison, but first, she and her company—her husband was in the company as well—stole more than $11 million. There was a case in Nevada. A woman named April Parks got 16-40 years in prison for neglect, fraud, embezzlement, et cetera.
To show you how they're not supervised by the court at all, she hadn't filed audits in many of these cases ever for years. When she finally went to prison, somebody bought up her storage locker that had gone unclaimed. People buy storage lockers. “Ooh, what's inside?” What was inside were the urns, the cremains of almost 30 of her wards. She just cremated them no matter what their will said they wanted. Maybe they wanted to be buried next to their wife, so she had them all cremated and put the urns in a storage locker. Why? Because she could.
That's creepy also.
Instead of sending the ashes to the family. Anyway, that's how powerful, unsupervised, and Ill-regulated the system is. It's very sad. I've sat at kitchen tables and cried with people about what happened to their loved one many, many times. We need to do something in this country to fix it.
More regulation, going after people that are criminal in their management of other people, going after the conflicts of interests, and, “Hey, I'll become a real estate agent and get commission off of this.”
“I'll become proficient in antiques, and I'll know which ones to take home with me instead of putting them on the court inventory that you're supposed to list.” It's been quite a journey for me investigating this and then finally putting it into a book form for everybody. I do have suggestions at the end of the book about what you can do and other alternatives regarding this.
Why does it have to be a pendulum swing, full, strict, guardianship with a stranger in charge? There's something called supported decision-making, which is a big-brother, big-sister system of volunteers to help people who need a little bit to help. Maybe they just need help paying their bills in their checkbook. Maybe they just need help communicating on the telephone with people. Maybe they just need transportation help.
There's a young man I know who was deprived of oxygen at birth, developed a mild case of cerebral palsy, and won about $2 million in a settlement as an infant. The court—it was a New York case—assigned a guardian. The parents didn't spend all the money. It's the Shirley Temple Law, as they call it, so the parents can't take the money.
When he graduated from high school, ready to go to college, 18 years old, that money was supposed to be his. But the guardian went to the judge and said, “Well, look at him, your honor. He walks funny, and he talks a little bit differently. You need to keep me on his guardian,” and the judge did for six more years, charging the fees, charging the fees.
It was just last Christmas. His name is Michael Liguori. His story is in the book. Last Christmas day, he called me and he said, “It's over. I had to pay that damn guardian $56,000. I just did it, and now I'm free.” But by that time, they still don't know how much money is left in his account—probably not much.
There are definitely unscrupulous people who will do whatever they can to get people's money whatever way they can.
Yeah, people ask me why I did all this and why I wrote this book, because I don't like bullies. I don't like people who take advantage of other people, especially weakened people. I was raised to think that that's not right.
These are the people that you protect, not the people that you take advantage of.If we started really punishing these criminals that are working within the guardianship system, they would go somewhere else and do something else and stop preying on these people. -Diane Dimond Click To Tweet
Exactly. One more time, if we started really punishing these criminals that are working within the guardianship system, they would go somewhere else and do something else and stop preying on these people.
One thing we could do is start licensing them. There are only three states in the union that make guardians licensed. I found convicted felons that were guardians and people who just graduated from high school that were guardians. They require them to get some training. The plumber that comes into your house has to have more training, the certification, licensing, than a guardian who takes hold for someone's entire life, which doesn't make sense.
There are so many industries where to maintain your credentials, you need continuing education in the field. You have to take annual ethics classes. These sound like very simple things that hopefully will get enacted everywhere.
At least make them take a business course on how to manage finances, senior care training, family dynamics, or something. Again, many guardians have gotten themselves certified. Frankly, that can just be watching videos online for X number of hours and getting a certificate, but at least that's something. It's not required in most states.
It's better than nothing. Hopefully, we'll see a continuing movement to get more responsible in the way that we take care of those that are in need. If people want to find out more about you, where can they find you?
It's best to just go through my website, dianedimond.com. I've just revamped my website to feature this particular book. At the top of the website, there’s a navigation bar. There's something called Guardianship Central. That can put you in touch with all the people we've been talking about here—NASGA, CEAR.
There's one more I should mention, The Spectrum Institute, which is right there in California, a man named Tom Coleman. They represent the disabled community. They're all about the fact that we have an Americans with Disabilities Act. They’re supposed to get equal treatment under the law, not to get put into guardianship, conservatorship. Tom Coleman is another warrior in the cause. I have all their contact information on my website.
Awesome. We'll also make sure for the audience that we’ll link those in the show notes so that they can find them directly as well, link to your website, link to where they can buy the book, if they want to read more of these stories.
If you buy the book and you think it's worthy, please put up an Amazon review. I'm told that that really helps support a book. I really appreciate that.
Absolutely. Diane, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
My pleasure. Thanks for all your time and for your interest in this topic.