Several witnesses who said their rights and property were wrongly taken away in court proceedings joined a retired Wilson County judge on Thursday in calling for changes in the way conservatorships are granted and monitored in Tennessee.
Retired General Sessions Judge Haywood Barry told a Tennessee Bar Association panel that more monitoring is needed for those involved in conservatorships.
“You need some sort of training,” he said, referring to lawyers appointed by the courts to act as fact finders in conservatorship cases.
“The law is in pretty good shape. It’s a matter of getting the judges to go along,” Barry said, adding that monitoring needs to be independent. “You need someone from outside the system,” he said, “then I think they’ll pay attention.”
Thursday’s hearing was the first of four to be held across the state by a bar association panel that plans to make recommendations to the General Assembly, which is considering a series of reforms proposed by state Rep. Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat.
Tennessee law allows a judge to appoint a conservator to have control over another person’s health care or finances when that person is judged to be incapable of making decisions for him- or herself.
Barry’s testimony followed that of several witnesses, including Jewell Tinnon of Nashville and songwriter Danny Tate, who testified that conservatorships had wrongly stripped them of all their possessions. Both were released from conservatorships after they obtained medical exams to prove their mental capacity.
It was Tinnon’s case that prompted Odom’s efforts to change the law. The story of how she was put into a conservatorship and had her possessions sold off was detailed in a special investigative report in The Tennessean in April.
Last asset sold
Tate recounted how earlier this week his last major asset was auctioned off to pay lawyer fees stemming from his conservatorship. The winning $120,000 bid was made by one of those lawyers.
“Everything that has happened in this case defies all sense and logic,“ Tate said, adding that he went into the conservatorship a millionaire and came out impoverished.
Tate, like witnesses who followed, said he was placed in a conservatorship on an emergency petition without his knowledge and without proper medical evidence.
Tinnon, whose home was sold while she was in a conservatorship and who now lives in an apartment, said a recent notice that her rent is being increased may leave her homeless.
“They took my rights away,” Tinnon said, adding the conservatorship was initiated by relatives she hadn’t seen for six years. “I don’t think it’s fair, the way I’ve been treated.”
On hand to witness the hearing was Davidson County Probate Judge David “Randy” Kennedy.
But complaints about conservatorships were not limited to cases in Davidson County. Two sisters testified that a third sibling had gained control over their father under a conservatorship filed in Stewart County.
‘No one is safe’
“I’ve done everything I can to help my daddy,” said Jeanette Bryant, who described how her father burst into tears when he discovered he couldn’t get into his house because the locks had been changed.
She said her father, William Howard, was now in an assisted living facility and her visits with him were monitored and restricted.
Shelby Gregory said his father had been placed in a conservatorship in Wilson County by his sister. He said Dan Gregory remains under the control of a conservator despite a lack of medical evidence that he suffers from dementia.
“No one is safe from probate court,” Gregory testified. “We’ve been violated.”
After his testimony, Barry, the retired Wilson County judge, was asked how the monitoring system he proposed could be financed.
“The payment is a major problem, but it gets down to how do you want to treat these people?” Barry said.
One member of the bar association panel, William Barrick, said he personally favored a complete rewrite of the law to build in more protections for people who are placed in conservatorships. He conceded, however, that smaller changes were more likely to be recommended to the General Assembly.
Additional hearings will be held in Memphis, Morristown and Chattanooga.
Witnesses’ tales reveal flaws in TN’s conservatorship law
Conservatorship victims tell sad stories at hearing
Walter F. Roche Jr.
September 21, 2012
State bar association hears horror stories about problems with Tennessee’s conservatorship law
Travis Loller/Associated Press
September 20, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Members of the Tennessee Bar Association heard an earful on Thursday from Tennesseans upset over the state law that they say allows unscrupulous people to take advantage of vulnerable adults.
The conservatorship law is meant to protect adults with diminished capacity because of age, disability, mental health issues or addiction. It allows a judge to appoint someone as a guardian to oversee their affairs. But the system does not always work as intended.
At the Thursday hearing in Nashville, Jewell Tinnon, who is 82 years old, said two grandsons took over her affairs through a conservatorship, selling her car and her house and everything in it. She eventually was able to get out of the conservatorship, but only after she had lost everything.
Tinnon begged the panel of attorneys listening to her testimony for help in finding somewhere to live.
“Next month, I’ll be outdoors,” she said. “I ain’t got nowhere to live.”
Songwriter Danny Tate told the panel he was placed in a conservatorship in 2007 by his brother, who felt he was a drug addict.
“They had no medical evidence, no police reports, no calls to 911, no complaints from neighbors,” he said.
Tate said he was a millionaire before the conservatorship began, with all his bills paid and near-perfect credit. Now he is in bankruptcy and the house where his children were born and raised was sold at auction.
Under a conservatorship, he said, “you cannot vote, marry or enter into a contract. Your signature is not valid.
“A death row inmate has more rights than a conserved ward of the state.”
Another speaker, Ginger Franklin, said a conservator was appointed for her in 2008 after she suffered a traumatic brain injury from a fall.
Although she recovered, the conservatorship process already was under way.
“I lost my home, my car, my job, the majority of my possessions; my credit was trashed — all because I fell down the stairs at my home. If it happened to me it could happen to you or anyone.”
Loretta Threatt and Jeanette Bryant told the panel one of their sisters had taken control of their 88-year-old father’s estate and placed him in various nursing homes and assisted living facilities. They said they are only allowed brief, supervised visits with him and that his pastor is not allowed any visits.
“It’s been done unfair and inhumane, and I feel like it’s unconstitutional,” Bryant said.
National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse President Elaine Renoir said problems with guardian and conservator systems are nationwide. Some people really do need a guardian, she said, but there are not enough protections for those that do not.
She said Tennessee needs better due-process protections that would allow someone who is being considered for a conservatorship to fight it. That includes allowing them to use their money to hire an attorney and letting a jury hear their case if they request it.
Thursday’s hearing was the first of several around the state intended to generate ideas for improving the conservatorship system. Future hearings are planned in Memphis, Chattanooga and an as-yet-undetermined location in East Tennessee.
Bar association executive director Allen Ramsaur said the group’s Special Committee on Conservatorship Practice and Procedure would then draft recommended changes to the state law for consideration by the General Assembly.