Refusal to be tested costs aging immigrant her fortune, freedom
Sue Lindsay, News Staff Writer
April 10, 2001
The Rocky Mountain News
Clara Gelberg was eccentric, headstrong and, by most accounts, a royal pain in the neck.
Some said she was demented.
But Clara flatly refused to be examined to determine whether she was.
Denver Probate Court took control of her life anyway, and for half a decade, lawyers, conservators, guardians and case managers squabbled over her affairs, all the while charging their fees to her estate.
When she finally agreed to be evaluated, a psychiatrist gave her a clean bill of mental health, and she escaped from the probate pit.
“It was horrible,” her daughter, Ahuva Spronz, said in a recent interview. “I think we lost about a million dollars before it was over.”
Clara was born in poverty in Poland and grew up in the Soviet Union. She emigrated to Israel, then to the United States with her husband, Elchonon, a cantor who would come to serve Denver’s BMH Congregation. Together they amassed a small fortune by investing in rental properties in Denver.
After Elchonon died in 1991, Clara sank into a deep depression.
Despite assets valued at $1.5 million, she lived alone in a tiny, cluttered apartment where a narrow path wound among family treasures and junk from the living room to the kitchen and bathroom.
The tub leaked and was unusable because it was filled with bedding. The beds were barricaded by piles of papers and boxes of possessions.
Clara slept on her living room sofa, hounded by bouts of insomnia and loneliness. Her rental properties, already in need of repairs, fell into dilapidation. Spronz, Clara’s only daughter, arrived from London in 1992 to sort out the mess.
“I didn’t want to get involved, but something had to be done,” she said in an interview, because some of the properties were in danger of being condemned. She first asked her mother for power of attorney, but Clara refused.
“So I had to go to court,” Spronz said. “That was against her wishes, and it put the whole family on bad terms.” Spronz hired attorney Robert Steenrod, a former probate court clerk, to represent her.
On June 22, 1992, based on Spronz’s assertion that her mother had a personality disorder but without any medical evidence that Clara was incompetent, then-Probate Judge Field Benton approved a temporary conservatorship. It put Spronz in charge of her mother’s finances.
He ordered Clara to undergo a psychological evaluation in August, but she was adamant in her objection:
“I will not be forced to be medically evaluated,” she wrote Benton. “I am perfectly capable of monitoring and taking care of my own health requirements.”
Two months after being named conservator, Spronz got a restraining order to keep Clara away from her rental properties where, according to the daughter, she was intimidating tenants and causing management problems.
A few weeks after that, Spronz asked that her mother be held in contempt of court for violating the restraining order and for failing to submit to a psychological evaluation.
The judge agreed and declared Clara in contempt.
As soon as the conservatorship became permanent on Sept. 16, 1992, Spronz put the first of Clara’s rental properties on the market: a 6,200-square-foot, three-story, brick-and-stone building at 1401 High St.
Her plan was to sell that property to get money to update the other rentals, then sell them with a goal of relocating her mother to Israel, where she owned more real estate.
The building on High Street contained 14 efficiency apartments. But it was run-down and appraised at only $100,000 by Chess Martin, who said it would take $50,000 in repairs to bring it up to code.
Clara’s friend, Bonnie Chancellor, a real estate agent not involved in the sale, later told the News she thought the property was undervalued.
“The land alone would be worth a lot more than that,” she said.
The building sold for $90,000 — $14.50 per square foot — in October 1992. This incensed Clara, inflaming her conviction that her life’s work would be lost in the hands of her daughter.
In the months that followed, Clara became obsessed with the court battle. Her home grew even more cluttered with court documents, which she stuffed under sofa cushions, carpets and table cloths and sometimes posted on curtains and lampshades.
Benton appointed a variety of officials to help Clara, including attorney Susan Haines as guardian ad litem and Stephanie Conrardy as case manager.
But when Haines sought to minimize Clara’s exposure to disturbing court proceedings, Clara became more agitated, telling Haines, “even murderers get to go to their own court proceedings.”
Both Haines and Conrardy found Clara difficult to work with.
“I have spent numerous exasperating hours this month with Clara,” said Conrardy in one report. Clara was “explosive without provocation and lacks self-control.” She said Clara even offered to bribe her “if I told Judge Benton that she didn’t need a guardian.”
“Clara is exasperating,” wrote Haines in a report. But she blamed Clara’s probate court experiences for exacerbating her difficult behavior.
Clara was “profoundly confused and shocked” by the court order refusing her access to her own properties and “terrorized” by the order holding her in contempt, Haines said.
“She is afraid of her daughter and afraid of the court.”
In 1994, Spronz put up for sale Clara’s 24-unit condominium complex at Colorado Boulevard and East 11th Avenue. The Colorado Hospital Authority snapped it up for $600,000.
Clara fought the sale, contending that she had been offered $1 million for the complex by “a couple from California,” during a real estate slump in 1987, although it was appraised at $480,000 in 1994.
“Your conservator is hazardous for my property and poisoning my daily life,” she wrote the judge. “I have no more tolerance for this torture and I refuse to be the conservator’s slave! Your honor, please help me to be me again.”
Despite her objections, Benton approved the sale in March 1994, and after hearings in July 1994, he refused to terminate the conservatorship saying “clear and convincing evidence has been established to warrant it.”
Clara, he said, “continues to demonstrate disorganized and upon occasion slightly delusional thinking to the extent that she is unable to manage her properties and financial affairs effectively.”
A few months later, however, Clara traveled by herself to Israel to handle real estate matters there.
“During this period, she met with various bidders and impressed me as someone who is in full control of things,” Tel Aviv attorney Michael Levin wrote the court.
Clara’s caretakers began to question Spronz’s motives.
“It seems to me that much of Ahuva’s motivation revolves around financial gain for herself rather than her mother’s best interest,” Conrardy wrote in a July 1994 memo.
Spronz claims to want to help her mother, Haines observed in another report, “and yet perpetually finds herself acting in ways which are guaranteed to frustrate Clara beyond reason and drive her into temporary episodes of insanity.”
Attorney Steenrod vehemently supported his client, Spronz.
“It needs to be understood by all parties that we are dealing with a protected person who is TOTALLY uncooperative in any and every context,” he wrote. “The conservator has had fifty years of dealing with the dominating, willful personality excesses of her mother . . . A level of loving toughness and determination has had to be developed in order to accomplish anything . . .”
“Ahuva Spronz has been extremely energetic, resourceful and successful in the renovations of the protected person’s properties,” he wrote. “Conservatively, she has probably doubled the worth of her mother’s assets.”
Spronz’s second cousin, Diana Suslak, also wrote in support.
“I saw how much she suffered in trying to clean up the numerous messes created by her parents,” Suslak said. “Over the years I came to realize that Ahuva was a far more devoted and dedicated daughter than anyone I know, myself included.”
In April 1995, Haines suggested bringing in professional guardian Gordon Wolfe as a case manager to oversee Clara’s daily needs.
“He admittedly is very expensive but also very tough. I refer him my worst cases that more gentle case managers won’t touch and apart from his high fees, he is an excellent guardian,” Haines wrote.
Wolfe served as case manager until November 1995. By then he had had enough and told the court he didn’t want Clara’s case.
“There are currently too many players in the life of Clara Gelberg with no apparent boundaries, rules or authority governing most of these players,” Wolfe wrote.
In a recent interview, he said Clara clearly didn’t need a guardian.
“I did not feel a guardianship was appropriate for her,” Wolfe said. “Although people said she was acting peculiarly, I did not think the case met the threshold for someone needing a guardian.
“Just because someone is unique, difficult, profane or does foolish things does not mean they need a guardianship. The right to folly is an American right.”
In May 1995, Jean Stewart became Denver probate judge, and Field Benton took senior status.
Soon the battle over Clara’s independence erupted into new accusations.
Clara’s attorney, Kurt Holleyman, charged that guardian ad litem Haines’ goal “is not to look out for the best interest of Clara but is instead to . . . cause her to be medicated so that she is unable to know what is being done to her and cause her to be institutionalized so as to be defenseless until her whole estate is dissipated.”
Similarly, Clara stated in a Sept. 12, 1995, affidavit: “I am concerned Mr. Steenrod and Ms. Haines will stoop to any depth to institutionalize me so that they can continue to bill me for huge fees until my estate is gone.”
But Haines repeatedly said in her reports that Gelberg should not be put in a nursing home and sought court orders to ensure that repairs were made to make her home safe.
“The G.A.L. (guardian ad litem) feels strongly that Clara should not be institutionalized and that to do so may well hasten her death,” Haines said in one report.
Despondent and overwhelmed, Clara offered to leave $25,000 in her will to attorneys Haines and Steenrod if they would leave her alone.
Later, she responded to Steenrod’s request for an additional $10,000 in payment: “You are not to be paid any more money from my estate. I am tired to being a milk cow. You have milked me dry up to now, but no more, sir.”
Finally, in November 1995, Clara agreed to be evaluated by psychiatrist Bruce Leonard.
He found she had no mental illness. She was competent and was able to manage her own affairs.
“Mrs. Gelberg’s behavior is quite consistent with her character, age, culture, relationships and life experiences,” Leonard wrote in his report to the court.
He told the court Clara “feels like she has been in prison for over four years because of the control over her life held by her daughter and attorneys.”
Stewart considered Leonard’s assessment as well as that of several other doctors who concluded Clara Gelberg was competent to manage her affairs.
On March 1, 1996, Stewart terminated the conservatorship, noting that the case might have proceeded much differently had Clara consented to an evaluation early in the court proceedings.
By then, hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent or billed by attorneys and others appointed to protect Clara.
Among them were conservator Spronz, Clara’s attorneys, the guardian ad litem, case managers and psychiatrists.
Guardian ad litem Haines was paid nearly $100,000 from 1992 to 1994. Spronz’s attorney, Steenrod, was paid about $80,000, and his successor, Denis Clanahan, sought $51,000. Gordon Wolfe was paid $13,090 for six months of involvement as case manager.
Spronz paid herself between $50,000 and $100,000 for her labors as conservator, according to Clara’s attorney, Holleyman.
Spronz also spent about $200,000, which Spronz said went largely toward renovating rundown rental units.
Clara challenged many of the fees in court, saying Steenrod, Haines and Wolfe charged for overlapping work.
During a trial on the fees in February 1996, attorney Julianne McCabe submitted an analysis of Haines’ fees, which she found excessive.
“Numerous lawyers were involved in this matter,” she said. “A total of five lawyers from Haines’ firm worked on the Gelberg matter, generally three at a time. The number of people involved required extensive conferencing and memoing among one another” that drove up costs.
Stewart cut Haines’ fees by about $9,000, saying Haines “undertook services beyond the scope” of the court’s assignment and “became a litigant rather than a representative.”
The judge also rejected fees that Spronz and Haines tried to charge Clara to pay for their lawyers in the fee fight.
“There were just too many people involved,” said Spronz, “all getting paid from mother’s estate. My mother’s lawyer, my lawyer, then the guardian ad litem. Then they start calling and writing letters to one another, charging $200 an hour, and we’re talking about a lot of money here.
“I saw all these lawyers as like wolves who were interested in putting their hands on the money,” she said. “It’s not that they wanted to steal, but their fees are so high that before you know it the money is gone.”
Once Clara was free of the probate court, she resumed control of her life, at least for a while.
A professional management company oversaw Clara’s properties, and she continued living in her apartment for more than a year.
But in September 1997 she wound up in the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan, this time diagnosed with mild dementia.
Spronz was called back to help. Her mother again balked at interference but agreed to a voluntary conservatorship until her affairs could be put back in order.
That ended March 11, 1999, when temporary conservatorship orders expired. Clara then moved to Israel.
“Thank you, honorable Judge Stewart for setting me free,” she wrote as her dealings with probate court came to a close, “so I will be able to enjoy the fruits of my hard labor.”
Case history: Conservatorship established in 1992 after husband died in 1991 and rental properties fell into disrepair. Conservatorship lifted after four-year fight. Second conservatorship established in 1997 and lifted in 1999.
Time spent as ward: Four years, then two years
Sample of ward’s expenses: Nearly $100,000 to guardian ad litem
Personal history: Grew up in Eastern Europe, emigrated to Israel and came to Denver when husband became cantor of BMH Congregation.
Judges, jurisdiction: Field Benton and Jean Stewart, Denver Probate Court.
Family status: Daughter Ahuva Spronz is only living immediate family member.
Except where otherwise indicated, the information in this story is based on court records.