DENVER -- A Colorado lawmaker wants more accountability and transparency in the state’s guardianship system after Denver7 Investigates exposed how guardians can bleed estates of the most vulnerable with little oversight.
“There has to be a better way,” said State Rep. Kim Ransom, R-Douglas County. “They need to have some type of oversight and there really needs to be some accountability for these guardians.”
Denver7 Investigates first told the story of twin brothers Greg and David Wells.
The probate court placed their mother, Sharon Wells, 80, under guardianship, and court records show how quickly the money started disappearing.
“Her golden years have been turned into a nightmare,” Greg Wells said.
During an 18-month period, records show the conservator charged nearly $150,000 to Sharon Wells, making up to $325 an hour for taking care of her estate. Items included tasks like answering emails, phone calls and managing her properties.
“The fees absolutely need to be transparent,” Ransom said.
When a probate court finds an adult mentally unfit, a judge can place them under guardianship. The guardian is then responsible for making all their medical, financial and legal decisions. It also often means isolating the elderly from their family.
Lawmakers previously tried to act
Former Colorado State Sen. Laura Woods tried to help fix the guardianship system five years ago.
“If the state legislature can’t shut them down. I don’t know who can, and that’s what we were trying to do,” Woods previously told Denver7.
Ransom was also co-sponsor on the 2016 bill. It would have given basic rights to those under guardianships, access to a phone, mail, and visits from family. However, the bill died in the State House of Representatives.
“I was very grateful when I saw your report because it actually pointed out that there really was a problem that existed at the time and continues to exist now,” Ransom said.
The Wells brothers estimate the conservators and guardians who were responsible for their mother have drained more than a million dollars from her estate.
“It’s a money-making machine,” one of the Wells brothers said.
Colorado attorney says system needs to change
Chris Forsyth is the director of the Judicial Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.
He said judges aren’t reviewing the fees submitted to the court and thinks more needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable.
“Having their lives ruined emotionally and financially by the probate system because it has insufficient checks and balances. To hear it over and over again, consistently shows that there is a problem,” he said. “The state auditor has twice criticized the probate system in Colorado for a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability,” he said.
The most recent state audit from 2017 found conservators aren’t giving the courts enough information regarding the fees they charge. At the same time, it found the courts aren’t adequately tracking data to properly oversee public administrators.
Forsyth blames lobbying efforts for why lawmakers have not stepped in to act to address many of the aspects identified in the audits.
“Because of the powerful lobby within the Colorado Bar Association, the probate lawyers that are serving as these public administrators... it’s not a fair fight at the Capitol,” he said.
The Colorado Bar Association (CBA) told Denver7 Investigates that it has done a lot of work to prevent elderly abuse and a spokesman said it wants to ensure legislation is not one-sided.
The CBA did oppose Woods bill in 2016 but said it has supported other legislation that better protects those under guardianship.
Forsyth said none of those bills have gone far enough.
“Capping fees would definitely help,” he said.
“The fees are definitely a problem. Clearly, people have their entire estate wiped out by a court appointed guardian who has no oversight or very little oversight,” she said. “If there's a solution, I would absolutely be willing to be part of it.”
Denver7 Investigates also reached out to the state Attorney General’s Office. A spokesman said the AG doesn’t have jurisdiction over guardianships because these are court appointed roles and are overseen by the state judicial system.