A court-appointed conservatorship in Santa Clara County has eaten up much of the money my parents saved over a lifetime for their retirement. The current system is taking away people’s rights, and our lives have been ruined in the process.
In early 2020, Britney Spears posted a TikTok video that concerned her fans, and the #FreeBritney movement soon went viral. A petition seeking a congressional investigation into Britney’s conservatorship received hundreds of thousands of signatures, and news outlets nationwide reported on her plight. Eventually, she was released from her conservatorship.
This was the first introduction much of the public had to conservatorships. But many of us with elderly parents or other vulnerable family members are in a battle with conservatorships that we feel leave them without agency in their own care and finances, for years on end. We have watched helplessly as our loved ones’ assets and savings accounts have been consumed by legal fees, with little accountability. And unlike Britney, they have no voice, and no one is on TikTok talking about them.
My mother is under such a conservatorship. The road to this arrangement began around the time my parents were in their 80s and planning their will. My parents had worked hard since they arrived in the United States in the 1970s, and had managed to save a decent nest egg for retirement. But some of their decisions about their finances and care led to conflict with their son, my brother. He suggested that they go to a seniors home—something they did not want. He then wanted to be a beneficiary of my father’s life insurance, which my father was also firmly against, believing that it should go to his wife.
By 2015, my father was terminally ill. To help handle my parents’ affairs, I contacted a lawyer (who was later suspended by the State Bar for billing clients but not doing any legal work). He recommended that I become my mother’s conservator—this would put me in charge of her finances and medical affairs. I went to a class in court for the formal training. Only later did I realize that this whole exercise was not even necessary, because my parents had already designated me as their power of attorney in their will and advance healthcare directives.
When my brother got wind of this, he was very upset, and sought control of their assets in Israel and to be made the beneficiary of their house in the US—an asset that my parents wanted me to have, because they had given him many cash gifts in the past. What I thought was simply family turmoil was, in fact, creating the perfect storm for the players in the wings.
I fired my lawyer, who was charging me $100 for minutes-long phone calls during which he would tell me that he was busy. My new lawyers advised me to hire a court-appointed fiduciary and court-appointed lawyer to oversee the management of my mother’s finances, so I wouldn’t spend tons of money fighting my brother in court over the will and the deed to the house. It was communicated to me that a conservatorship would be a neutral entity to take care of my mother’s financial and health needs.
Following the advice of these lawyers, and not wanting to throw my parents’ money away in a legal battle with my brother, I agreed to have the court appoint a conservator: specifically, a fiduciary, and lawyers who represented the fiduciary, carrying out their recommendations. The fiduciary, I later learned, manages $32 million.
During the first court hearing in 2015, I was surprised to hear the new court-appointed lawyer introduce the narrative that I was stealing my parents’ house—a story I had heard my brother tell on numerous occasions. I had assumed this lawyer was supposed to represent the needs of my mother, who had told her on numerous occasions that she wanted to put the house in my name. Though she had been diagnosed with early-stage dementia before the hearing, a doctor from a memory clinic had written two letters to the court to confirm that my mother was still able to make decisions about her own finances and will.
In early 2016, my father passed away. Much of my mother’s family is still in Israel, so I asked the conservators whether I could take her for a visit home. She had been especially lonely ever since her husband and business partner of 57 years passed away, and traveling to Israel filled her with such joy. In 2016 and 2017, they allowed it.
But in 2018, not only did the conservators deny this request, the court-appointed attorney told me that if I tried to take her out of the country to see her family, I could be jailed. During the mediation when they told her she could not travel to Israel, she was completely perplexed, asking what she had done to deserve this. I was unable to even sit next to her or hug her; the court did not allow it.
On seven different occasions, the conservatorship attempted to seize her assets in Israel as a means of controlling all her money, not just the US-based assets. The Israeli government ultimately refused to comply with this, but over $75,000 of my father’s life insurance payout and my mother’s assets were consumed along the way. She was then charged another $60,000 for Israeli lawyers’ fees. At one point, one of the more sympathetic judges I have met in this process suggested that perhaps my mother should be the one to make the decision about her assets in Israel. But nothing changed.
We have received countless invoices over the years—$12,000 here, $60,000 there—for legal fees related to the conservatorship. Liens have now been placed on my mother’s house, to be paid to the lawyers upon her death. My mother now has about $90,000 left in her annuity and $7,000 in the bank. The conservatorship gives her a monthly allowance of $500 for groceries and clothes, and about $300 on a Trulink card under my name for basic utilities like electricity and her phone bill. But the card is often left unreplenished, so I now pay the utilities, water, gas, home insurance, and property tax out of my own pocket. I also pay for much of my mother’s health insurance costs—and have drained much of my own savings paying for additional lawyers to help us sift through this mess.
All told, despite only giving my mother a few hundred dollars a month for basic expenses, the conservatorship has eaten through nearly $1,000,000 of my parents’ hard-earned money—even using her own money to attempt to take over more of her assets in Israel! My mother does not want to be controlled by this conservatorship. She has repeatedly told the court, the fiduciary, and the lawyers that she wants to live her life on her own terms. She is confused and devastated that the money she worked so hard for is being spent by the conservatorship in this fashion without her approval.
But we have learned the hard way that people who are subject to conservatorships have fewer rights than a criminal—even a convicted murderer can pick their own lawyer. You may be wondering at this point, is there not some process to have a family member released from a conservatorship?
At a 2020 court hearing, I asked this question. I was told that I must petition, which entails filling out many forms and attending more court hearings that will drain even more of my mother’s money as well as my own. I have already used up my entire 401k trying to get her released from the conservatorship. But the system has become so complex that the average person cannot navigate a way through without losing everything. The one pro-bono attorney I was able to make contact with was drowning in so many similar cases that he had to give mine up.
I know that my mother’s story is not unique. In California alone, conservatorship is a $13 billion industry. Though a conservatorship is supposed to help an incapacitated person manage their finances and care—and some do—many are held hostage in a legal deadlock against their will, with little recourse. Sometimes, as in the case of Alameda County, conservatees are sent straight to a preferred senior home, with no bidding process or room for other care providers to compete. There is said to be a refrain among some of the probate judges and lawyers: “I don’t know her son, but I do know this fiduciary.”
I recently joined a human rights coalition with others who entered into conservatorships for their elderly parents or disabled family members only to find them highly problematic and financially draining. We believe that the current conservatorship system is in desperate need of reform. As it functions now, in my opinion, many elderly people and their family members are being swept up into a system they don’t fully understand—one with very few checks and balances and little accountability. End-of-life care decisions are never easy. But administrative efficiency cannot be an excuse to deny people their constitutional rights.