WWII veteran’s plight brings call for probate court reform (CT)

Ideally, when 96-year-old Louis Russo had to leave his home temporarily, the probate judge would have appointed someone who understood his wishes and who wanted to carry them out.

Instead, under the care of a court-appointed conservator, the World War II veteran, who had always lived independently, was stripped of his rights, relegated to a nursing home and drained of his life savings.

Russo’s friends and supporters are channeling their energy into getting him back into his New Fairfield house by Veterans Day. Meanwhile, their outrage has intensified calls for review, reform and legislation to ensure that there aren’t more cases like his.

“I have great respect for the vast majority of conservators in Probate Court, but I am aware that there have been a few very bad cases, and that is a few too many,” said Keith Bradoc Gallant, a New Haven attorney and leading authority on probate procedure. “We just need to work on fixing that.”

At issue is how to prevent misconduct when a court-appointed conservator is given full power over a person deemed disabled by age or mental incapacity.

Connecticut can learn from other states that use social workers as conservators, because they are trained to navigate the social service system, Gallant said. There is also a growing sense nationwide that the power of conservators should be checked, he added.

Although experts argue that misconduct is rare among conservators in Connecticut probate courts, activists warn that as the population ages, the demand for conservators is going to grow.

All the more reason to be sure that conservators are well-qualified and well-monitored, a top court official said. “I would like to build a program for statewide training and support for conservators,” said Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim.

Knierim, who manages the state’s 54 probate courts, said he is open to establishing a licensing program for conservators, like those in other states.

Russo’s story

Had there been kin in Russo’s life following a fall at his home two summers ago, when a social worker reported to Probate Court that he could no longer manage his affairs, the judge possibly would have considered naming a family member as conservator.

Besides wanting a conservator competent enough to manage a person’s financial and health affairs, the probate judge typically looks for someone compassionate enough to keep the person’s best interests at heart.

“You are talking about a combination of factors that really are challenging,” said Gallant, who serves as the American College of Trust and Estate’s representative to the National Guardianship Association. “The problem is how you find individuals with integrity to take on these very difficult tasks.”

Since Russo never married and his closest kin was an 88-year-old sister in Florida too frail to care for him, Housatonic Probate Judge Martin Landgrebe appointed as conservator a man Russo had never met, Mark Broadmeyer, whose qualifications for the post were not clear.


WWII veteran’s plight brings call for probate court reform
Rob Ryser
October 25, 2014