Bittner’s Bite

So we have a new published opinion on a probate court case – something unusual these days.  In Re Conservatorship of Shirley Bittner was published September 8, 2015.  Click here to read the case.

In Bittner, the probate court imposed a conservatorship over the vulnerable adult, and did so over what the Court of Appeals calls her “strenuous objections.”

The subject of the petition was Shirley Bittner.  The petition was brought by her daughter Suzanne.  Shirley was a 74 year-old widow.

Suzanne had been granted power of attorney over Shirley by Shirley, and had been made co-trustee of Shirley’s trust; that is until Shirley concluded that Suzanne had misused those powers for her own benefit.  At that time Shirley petitioned the Court to recover the property she believed had been misappropriated by Suzanne.  Suzanne countered with a Petition to have a third party (public fiduciary) appointed as Shirley’s conservator.  Meanwhile Shirley appointed a second daughter, Stacey, as her agent under a new power of attorney.

The probate court took evidence and appointed Stacey (the new agent under power of attorney) as conservator.

Appointment of a conservator is a two-prong test.

1. Is the person unable to make their own decisions (are they sufficiently impaired to invoke the Court’s jurisdiction to take away their rights)?; and

2. If the Court does not act, will this person’s resources be mismanaged?

Both prongs must be met to impose a conservatorship over an adult.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the decision of the trial court and reversed.

As to the first prong, the Court of Appeals found that the evidence was marginal.  Shirley clearly had some impairments, but it was not so clear that those impairments rose to the level necessary to impose a conservatorship over her.

As to the second prong, the Court of Appeals found no evidence that anything was being mismanaged, at least now that Stacey was acting has power of attorney.

The case is important, as it fires a shot across the bow of the trial courts that are routinely imposing conservatorships over older adults.  And importantly, by analogy, the case will serve the same purpose with respect to the imposition of guardianships.

But nothing is simple in terms of this area of the law.  As to the law, there is no question that the Court of Appeals is right on.  No doubt courts are way too quick to impose guardianships and conservatorships without sufficient legal basis.  That said, it is also true that there is a great deal of mischief in the world of vulnerable adults.  Once one child is taking advantage of mom, one wonders whether the next child is likely to do so and/or whether in time mom will be persuaded to create yet another power of attorney appointing the daughter who allegedly misappropriated assets, or yet another child who may or may not be acting in mom’s best interests.  Mom is vulnerable – that’s the point.  So, left unchecked, these cases can go on and on.  Where there is money and family dysfunction, there is a high likelihood of further issues.  I would suggests that there is something to be said for probate judges who have seen enough of these cases to want to simply grab control, create a conservatorship, and thereby put themselves in the position of monitoring what goes on in the future; and by doing so, shut the door to future mischief.

Accordingly, I appreciate the Court of Appeals upholding the rules.  I greatly respect my many colleagues who recognize that taking away the rights of an adult should only be done as a last resort.  But I worry about law that makes trial judges less willing to step in and grab control when it is clear that the mayhem has begun.