Alan Fantin called the other day to let me know that the Homeless Millionaire is no longer homeless.
The 51-year-old Fantin was the subject of our September 5 cover story, "The Homeless Millionaire," which recounted his legal battle to achieve greater personal and economic freedom after decades of having his assets under the control of a court-appointed conservator. When I interviewed Fantin for the story, he had a net worth on paper of close to $3 million — but only a couple of bucks in his pocket and was struggling to pay for groceries and lodging, having been banned from the house he owns because of a pending domestic violence charge.
At the age of fourteen, Fantin was in a bad car accident in Parker that left him with a severe head injury and partially paralyzed. A subsequent court settlement provided him with annuity income that now amounts to more than $60,000 a year. But because a family member expressed concerns that Fantin would quickly spend the principal if put in charge of his own funds, a series of conservators have administered the trust from the outset. The arrangement has led to a series of conflicts between the conservators and Fantin, who's spent more than $30,000 in recent years in an effort to demonstrate his competency and get the conservatorship dissolved.
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Since fiduciary Scott Christian took over as Fantin's conservator two years ago, the struggle for control has escalated — along with the costs of the conservatorship. Court records indicate that in 2016-17, Christian's fees and related expenses consumed more than half of the annual income provided by Fantin's accident settlement, while Fantin struggled to make ends meet on his "generous" $2,000-a-month allowance. Christian has reported to the probate court that Fantin's feuds with his longtime girlfriend, tendency to invite "tenants" to stay in his house without paying rent, and other troubling behavior have boosted the costs of managing his affairs; he's also disapproved of Fantin's frequent marijuana use, saying Fantin "will use most of the money provided him by the conservatorship to buy marijuana if not controlled."
Fantin says marijuana helps him control the seizures he suffers as a result of the accident. He's complained that Christian has failed to provide him with urgently needed financial assistance, particularly after he was arrested in July and charged with assaulting his girlfriend; as part of his pre-trial monitoring, he can't be within a one-mile radius of his alleged victim's residence, which was his home for the past several years. "It's at the point where [Christian] doesn't want to help me in any way," Fantin told me.
Two months ago, Christian filed a petition in Adams County Probate Court, seeking to have a guardian appointed in Fantin's case — someone who would have authority to make decisions about Fantin's living arrangements and health care. Fantin hired his own attorney to contest the move. According to Fantin, shortly after Westword published its story about the showdown, Christian filed a letter with the court announcing that he was resigning as Fantin's conservator. (Christian declined to speak to Westword about the case, citing the confidential nature of the conservatorship.)
Fantin now has a court-appointed guardian ad litem, not a guardian; with the GAL's help, he was able to move into a trailer court that has a fenced yard for his dog. "I'm really enjoying it," he reports of his new digs. "Having my own place again is great."
He is hopeful that his domestic-violence case will be resolved soon, allowing him to reclaim his house in Lakewood. In the interim, he's arranging to take another psychological evaluation in his bid to take over control of his resources. (A similar exam in 2009 indicated that he "has the ability to independently manage his finances appropriately," but a trial period of putting him in charge of his own checkbook evidently didn't go well.)
"I just need to get myself unplugged from the system," he says. "It's not as easy as it sounds. It's like, how many attorneys does it take to change a lightbulb?"
Getting extricated from costly, estate-dissipating battles in probate court is indeed tricky, says Luanne Fleming, who saw a battle over her mother's estate turn into a feeding frenzy involving attorneys, a guardian ad litem, the public administrator and other court professionals. "A lot of family members think they can take someone to court and get justice," she says. "It's just not true anymore."
Fleming and another court activist, Robin Austin, started a Colorado-based group called Families Against Court Embezzlement Unethical Standards, or FACEUS. The group has a website, a weekly Internet radio show called Hidden Truth Revealed, and a recurring spot on the Marti Oakley show (both programs are aired nationally). Fleming says she's been able to put together information on 26 families embroiled in probate-court disputes involving more than $50 million in estate assets; the families spent more than $7.6 million on attorney fees "to defend what was theirs to begin with," and ended up with about $7.6 million in assets when the battles ended. The remaining $35 million in estate value was devoured by various administrative and legal costs, nursing-home fees and other contingencies.
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"The public administrators are causing a lot of the problems we're having," Fleming says. "They're making about $60,000 to $80,000 for the higher-value cases. And there are about twenty attorneys in four firms that end up handling a lot of the cases."
Public administrators aren't government employees; they are private operators who act as "fiduciaries of last resort," supposedly when no one else is willing or able to act as a conservator or the executor of an estate. In Colorado, there's no salary cap on what the administrators can make from billing estates for their work, which some critics see as an incentive to prolong the court proceedings. A recent state audit of Colorado's thirteen public administrators found a lack of detailed accounting of fees and expenses in nearly half the cases reviewed and a general lack of judicial oversight; many hadn't even filed bonds that are required by law to protect their clients from being plundered.
"I think the U.S. Attorney needs to get involved," Fleming says. "We need to get the [Colorado] attorney general involved. There are many qualified family members who could take on estates, but these attorneys will use any excuse they can not to put a family member in there.... If we don't get some indictments, I don't think it's ever going to change."
Fantin is confident that he can move out of the shadow of probate court and manage his finances just fine. "If I just leave my trust alone, I can live pretty comfortably — as long as I don't have a bunch of people in my life screwing it up," he says. "Even on my worst day, I can do a better job than the GAL, the conservator, and the rest.... I mean, it's crazy to have to ask somebody to use my own money."