Michigan families speak out about losing to loved ones to guardianship

(WXYZ) - For months, the 7 Investigators have been digging into the guardianship system in Metro Detroit.  On Thursday night, we showed you how a local woman says that due to a court-appointed guardian, she can’t make any medical or financial decisions for her aging parents.

Several families have also come forward.

“This is not a system designed to help, this is prison,” said Niki Disner.  Disner says she was put under guardian and conservatorship for 4 years.

“To be able to know that you can go home - but they can’t – and they’re crying out to you, ‘please take me home with you, please get me out of here,’” said Lisa Bailey, who’s says she hasn’t been able to see her brother in months because he’s under guardianship.

“They took her dignity from her, they took everything from her.  She's completely powerless,” said Peter Klavinger, who’s fighting for his grandmother.  Peter says she’s currently in a nursing home, but he hasn’t been allowed by the guardian to his grandmother recently.

“Everybody has the same response, which is – how can this happen in America.  It’s so wrong to take away senior citizens’ rights – they need to be protected not exploited,” said Jayne Collins.  Collins says she’s been her mom’s primary caregiver ever since Nancy Collins was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009. 

“She has 5 children.  She did not want to be taken care of by a stranger, any more than absolutely necessary,” said Collins.  

The Collins siblings have been bitterly fighting for some time about who should care for their mom – and about who should have access to mom’s money.   That in-fighting is what allegedly prompted an attorney to petition the court to get a professional guardian and conservator appointed.

In Michigan, at least 33,478 adults have guardians.

That means a judge has decided those people are legally incapacitated, and the guardian is supposed to make all decisions, including medical decisions.  And if they’re also appointed as your conservator, they control your cash.

Collins says, at 84, her mom does have memory issues.  But Collins does not believe her mother should be considered incapacitated.  And neither does Nancy Collins.

“I don’t like it. It’s my world, I want to be in charge,” said Nancy Collins.

Oakland County Probate Judge Daniel O’Brien appointed a professional guardian and conservator for Nancy Collins:  attorney Thomas Brennan Fraser.

Jayne Collins is co-guardian, so she is able to help with Nancy’s health care; but she says she has zero say over Nancy’ finances. 

“She was not given any money from mid-April until after Labor Day weekend, Collins told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.  “This person is paying themselves whatever they want to not pay my mom’s bills, and getting away with it.”

According to the accounting for just one year of the guardianship: Fraser billed $17,131.22 in attorney fees.

“Their charges – it’s a complete conflict of interest because they pay themselves. They check in to no one,” said Collins. 

Probate judges do have to approve the fees, but often the family members don’t get to see the charges until after they’ve already been accrued.

Here’s a closer look at some of the costs:

Fraser charges $245/hour for legal work.

In fact, when he took over Collins’ case, he billed $245 twice to review both of her files.  And then one of his employees billed $100 – twice – to review both files.  That’s a total of $690 to just look at paperwork for one woman on one day.

Every time one of Fraser’s staffers leave a voicemail it costs Nancy Collins $10. The Guardian charged Collins $49 to send a fax to her oncologist; his staff billed $120 to complete 3 mail-forwarding requests.

Catallo: “We have several families that are telling us that you bill an awful lot of money but don’t do very much.  What is your response to that?”

Fraser: “And that’s just not true, my bills are my bills.”

When we tried to ask Fraser about his business practices, he referred us to his lawyer.

“They can say and do whatever they want, and they have people who will back them up,” said Disner, who was assigned 2 different guardians and a conservator between 2009 – 2013.

A group called Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship is trying to change the federal law to better protect vulnerable people.

“The bottom line is when you walk into that court room, the officers of the court, those who are in there every day, every week in front of that judge, their goal is to get you into a guardianship because that's how they get paid,” said AAAPG Director Rick Black.

The Elder Abuse and Protection Act passed the U.S. House and Senate, and it’s waiting for the President’s signature.  It would give the Department of Justice more power and resources to investigate these kinds of cases.  Guardianship experts say it’s a crucial first step in overhauling how the courts treat seniors and others in need.

We did reach out to some of the other Collins siblings for comment on this, but they are either not commenting or they have not returned our calls.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

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