A Lowcountry family called the I-Team furious because their bank account was drained and they were informed they had to ask for permission to spend any money.
When the courts take control of your finances it's called a conservatorship. Courts often intervene when a judge deems a person incapacitated.
The Case of Benjamin Bennett
Benjamin Bennett’s money was placed in a conservatorship last November after his doctor referred him to the Mt. Pleasant Police Department Senior Advocate. That Senior Advcate referred the Bennetts to Probate Court for the court to start a conservatorship. Bennett says now he can't tithe, take a vacation, or fix his roof without permission from the court.
“It's my money I worked my whole life for,” Bennett told the I-Team.
His daughter, Melissa, called the I-Team saying the problem started after her father’s doctor recommended the conservatorship to protect Mr. Bennett. Bennett recently sold land for a large sum of money. According to the doctor's report, Bennett showed signs of dementia and had voiced concerns about having so much money in the bank.
“They pay like six people to take care of you, but you don't even know the six people,” Melissa Bennett explained. “They are strangers.”
Melissa says with eight other siblings, the family is equipped the handle her parents' affairs. According to court and police reports on the case, there had been no signs of mistreatment or mismanagement of the Bennett’s money. Mr. Bennett's wife of 60 years, Ida, is his court appointed guardian, but even she can't access their retirement.
“I've never been through nothing like this in my whole life,” Mrs. Bennett said.
Court Appointed Control
The court appointed Iris Albright's team at Family Services to oversee the finances.
“The role of the conservator is to protect the assets of the individual,” Albright explained.
She says her team invests the money and sets a budget for the person they are appointed to help. Albright says conservatorships are designed to intervene in cases where family members can't agree on spending or when there isn't anyone else to help.
According to court records, there are 451 adults under a conservatorship in Charleston County. Court records show 37% of conservatorships are managed by a third-party versus a family member. A family member is always the first choice to handle a conservatorship, but there's a catch. They have to be backed with a bond or insurance. It can be very difficult to secure for family members without deep pockets.
Fewer than one percent of cases are dissolved by the court each year. The typical case is an accident case where the person is in intensive care then regains capacity. That means 99% of cases are dissolved only after a ward dies.
“Most individuals have some form of dementia and the person does not regain their capacity,” Probate Judge Irvin Condon explained via email. He's barred from speaking about any cases publicly, including the Bennett's case. He declined a taped interview on the topic of conservatorships.
The Bennett family fears several people including the courts, lawyers, doctors, and Family Services are making money off handling the Bennett's case.
Family Services is a non-profit organization, but doe collect a fee to manage money for wards.
Judge Condon sets the fees. He capped lawyer fees at $200 per hour. Doctors collect between $450 and $1,200 for exams. Social workers earn $275 to $300 for exams. Conservators collect roughly one percent of the money they manage each quarter. For the Bennett family, with roughly $500,000 in the account, that's $5,000 every three months.
Their case is expected to be back in court by the end of October to determine if the court needs to continue the conservatorship.
Planning for the future
To avoid the court interventions, Judge Condon recommends establishing a Last Will and Testament, a Declaration of Desire for Natural Death (otherwise known as a Living Will), a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare, and a Durable Power of Attorney for Business Affairs. Having the Durable Power of Attorney and the Health Care Power of Attorney would allow a family to bypass the Conservatorship/Guardianship procedures.
As a public service, Charleston County and Judge Condon provide the statutory Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney. If you need these documents contact the court here.