Changing of the Guard

Letty Milstein didn't believe she needed a guardian to look out for her best interests. All the feisty, opinionated 82-year-old widow really wanted in the spring of 1996 was to spend her remaining years in the home she'd occupied with her husband, Jules, for more than three decades, in the company of the son and dog she doted on.

But at a rushed hearing that April in Denver Probate Judge C. Jean Stewart's courtroom, Letty's daughter, arts patron Judi Wolf, insisted that a guardian and a conservator take over Letty's life and finances. Stewart agreed, despite the fact that Letty, through her son, her lawyer and her friends, had already arranged for a far less intrusive and less expensive program to help her with day-to-day tasks while she recovered from a broken hip.

Two months later Letty's money was going fast--her estate gnawed away by a growing pack of lawyers, expensive 24-hour home-health-care providers and a controversial court-appointed guardian who now wanted out after getting heat over his bills and tactics. Letty's lawyer asked if Stewart would allow neighborhood friends--a retired physician and his nurse wife, who'd agreed to help without charging--to act as Letty's guardians. But Judi Wolf protested, and instead the judge appointed another professional guardian ("Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?," May 22). And so the henhouse doors were left wide open for the foxes.

Two weeks ago, though, Letty finally got what her lawyer had asked for seventeen months earlier: friends who've taken over the role of guardian, without compensation beyond knowing they're doing the right thing; her son's renewed company and assistance; and the right to remain in her own home, at least for the time being.

All it took was:
--nearly every penny of what had been a $650,000 estate (not including Letty's home);

--a battle to keep the house and stay out of a nursing home when the money ran out;

--a six-month court-mandated exile of the only person Letty totally trusted and depended on: Her son, John Milstein;

--Letty being stripped of basic constitutional and statutory rights guaranteed to allegedly incapacitated or incompetent people but apparently not to the elderly;

--and a judge other than C. Jean Stewart, whose conduct in this case will be the subject of a hearing before the Colorado Court of AppeCR>als in January.

Letty might even have lost her toy poodle, Surprise, if the last in a line of court-appointed guardians had gotten her way back in September and stuck the old lady in a nursing home. But Judi and John managed to bury their hatchet in time to come to their mother's belated rescue and let her stay in her home in southeast Denver.

Letty Milstein is now back where she was almost two years ago. Only she's a lot poorer. And she's been put through an emotional wringer that couldn't have helped her health, although her court-appointed "protectors" claim to have "stabilized" her physically and emotionally.

In the meantime, the cozy little clique of lawyers and social workers who swarm like sharks around Denver Probate Court have become several hundred thousand dollars richer.

Letty's is an extreme case, made more difficult by the dynamics of a warring family that allowed the guardianship system to step in and take over. Unlike many of the elderly, Letty had a lot of money, which the judge allowed to disappear into the maw of the system.

In many other ways, though, Letty's case is business as usual for a system that critics, both nationally and here in the metro area, describe as "sick," "abusive," "easily exploited" and "negligent."

But while the circumstances surrounding Letty's story sound all too familiar to critics of Colorado's guardianship system, there's one crucial difference: The legal battles are just beginning, and their outcome could dictate a real changing of the guardian system. Besides the Court of Appeals hearing next month--the result of a motion filed by Letty Milstein's new attorneys this past summer--there's the scent of lawsuits in the chill December air, as Letty's supporters hope to recoup some of her money. And they think they have a good argument: After all, there are more allegations of conflicts of interest regarding Letty's case than there are fleas on a stray dog.

Letty's situation has even attracted the attention of the economic-crimesCR> unit of the Denver District Attorney's office. Although officials there won't discuss ongoing investigations, a spokeswoman notes that DA Bill Ritter "sent a clear message that we're willing to prosecute" other cases involving the elderly with the recent felony-theft conviction of one of the area's most prominent probate lawyers, Michael Dice. At one point, Dice was one of Letty's guardians.

While it may seem criminal that the system can treat the elderly this way, and while such treatment may often skirt the ethical boundaries, it's not necessarily illegal.

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Steve Jackson