Arizona’s highest court has tasked a committee to review the status of probate court with a mind toward identifying improvements. See Yet another court committee to look at guarding the guardians.
But as if another indicator was warranted of the need for improved judicial oversight of those hired to protect the vulnerable, there’s the case this month of the now disbarred New York lawyer, Steven T. Rondos. See Mtr of Rondos; Grievance Committee.
On Tuesday, May 4, 2010, Rondos, who before being disbarred, had served as a legal guardian of incapacitated wards, was sentenced to a stretch of 5 to 15 years in prison for stealing more than $4 million from the settlement monies that belonged to 23 vulnerable wards whose physical and financial affairs he was supposed to be managing and preserving. See New York Post and Law.com – Disbarred Attorney Draws Prison Sentence.
Equal opportunity temptation.
When it comes to temptation, defalcation is an equal opportunity offense. It can afflict not only lawyers, but the public guardians and the private professional guardians. As a matter of fact, tomorrow Friday, May 14, 2010 is supposed to be sentencing day in the case of defalcating fiduciary Angela Dottei, a former “Master Guardian” and private professional guardian, who I met a few years ago through an unsuccessful effort to get a private professional guardian licensing bill passed by the Nevada Legislature.
Sadly, the temptation to embezzle also worms its way into caregivers, including friends, family members and strangers hired by the hour. But when lawyers fall prey to human avarice and exploit their wards, the betrayal weighs most egregiously.
Not the first nor the last.
Steven T. Rondos is not the first lawyer nor will he be the last to get in trouble for financially abusing vulnerable wards. In fact, in January of this year, Matthew Terry Graff, a former southern Utah lawyer was sentenced for stealing from clients, In Graff’s case, it also involved taking settlement money that wasn’t his. Graff got his mitts on settlement money belonging to two men who had lost their wives in a plane crash.
And just last month, a Virginia man, Troy A. Titus, a Real Estate Investor, Disbarred Lawyer was sentenced to 30 Years for multiple fraud schemes and misappropriating over $10 million, including funds given to him by elderly or incapacitated clients who provided him with income intended to be held in trust. And it was just a few years ago, that Michigan lawyer Richard McQuillan was sentenced to six to 10 years in prison for embezzling some $800,000 from the estate of a long time client.
The beat goes on.
While the egregious instances involving lawyers garner the most attention, the financial abuse of the vulnerable, especially the elderly, is wide ranging. Indeed, this month, the official publication of the California State Bar, the California Bar Journal headlined several articles on elder financial abuse, including Elders are targeted for fraud and financial abuse, say panelists and Elder Abuse – a silent crime.
Since the mid 80’s, all 50 states have enacted guardianship laws and some states have even passed laws to regulate professional guardians.
Problem expected to worsen.
By 2020, the senior population is expected to jump to almost 55 million. And because the Baby Boomer generation is much more mobile than prior generations, when they retire, they’re often living farther away from their families. Invariably, the Boomers will increasingly come to rely on strangers, albeit regulated professionals, to manage their affairs when they are no longer able to.
The guardianship laws administered and supervised by the probate courts are supposed to be the last lines of protection to safeguard and conserve the assets of the protected ward. But is there sufficient supervision? Arizona Republic Columnist Laurie Roberts, for one, thinks not as she recounts in her latest May 12, 2010 column about court ward Edward Abbott Ravenscroft who’s had to pay his various protectors about a quarter million dollars even though there were no contested matters involved.
The real cost.
But beyond the human cost involved when fiduciaries exploit wards, the real cost is the consequential one once all the ward’s money is gone. That’s when the wards are left for the state to take care of. And who pays for that? We do.