July 28, 2015, Houston Press:
In October 2007, Willie Jo Mills of Houston suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body. A widow with two daughters and a son, the 80-year-old woman was prescribed a variety of pain medications, but doctors couldn’t find the right cocktail.
Six months later, Mills’s son Larry filed an application with the Harris County Probate Court to become his mom’s legal guardian. Mills’s youngest daughter, Sherry Johnston, who wasn’t getting along with Larry, contested her brother’s guardianship request. With the case at a standstill, Judge Christine Riddle Butts, one of the newest of Harris County’s four elected probate judges, selected the third-party guardians David R. Dexel, a Houston-based attorney, and Ginger Lott, a certified guardian in Texas, as Mills’s legal caretakers.
Johnston says that’s when the family’s five-year horror began.
According to documents filed with the Harris County Probate Court, Johnston alleges her mother was miserable and overmedicated and shriveled to 89 pounds while under the care of the court-appointed guardians. “She looked like a concentration camp victim,” says Johnston, who adds that she was barred from visiting her mother at Silverado Kingwood Memory Care Community after she complained about the lack of attention paid to her mom.
Following her complaint to the court, Johnston was allowed to visit with her mother. In the next six months, she put 30 pounds on her mother, but Willie Jo eventually moved to hospice and died on September 27, 2014, at the age of 86. Johnston thinks the pitiful treatment by the third-party guardians is part of the reason her mother stopped talking the last four months of her life.
“[Probate Court] isn’t about protection or appointing someone to act in the best interest of a person. It’s about ownership of a human being and all their assets. It’s starting to look like they’re running a business rather than taking care of elderly people,” says Debby Valdez, president of the San Antonio-based Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly.
By law, a person in the clutches of a guardianship loses his basic rights such as the ability to drive, spend money, marry, choose a place to live and make medical decisions for himself. Instead, the bill of rights is transferred to the appointed guardian.
A professional caretaker through a county guardianship program, or a certified — or even uncertified — guardian such as a private lawyer can carry out a court-appointed guardianship, which dissolves a previous power of attorney that a relative may have obtained. (The Texas Judicial Branch Certification Commission requires the completion of a four-hour course to become a certified guardian. Until recently, it had been only three hours.)
Before he became the legal guardian for his mother, Olga, Gregory DeFrancesco, a retired Houston Police Department sergeant, had been fighting a grueling guardianship battle in Harris County probate court.
In July 2012, Judge Loyd Wright of Harris County Probate Court No. 1 appointed Dexel to take care of the now 88-year-old woman’s affairs. The court became involved because Gregory and his sister Donna couldn’t agree on specifics regarding their mother’s care (or anything else, for that matter).
According to a complaint filed by Donna with the State Bar of Texas’s Chief Disciplinary Council, after Dexel sold Olga’s house, he hawked her belongings in a poorly run sale. Sentimental possessions, like their grandmother’s rocking chair and a piece of jewelry that contained their father’s ashes, were sold before Gregory and Donna had a chance to run over and rescue the items.
The barely legible, hand-scrawled itemized receipt looks as if a six-year-old kid had run the sale. Purchased items include “crystol plate” for $7, “3 oval” for $5 and “sieve,” “foil,” “napkin hold” and “SS gravy body” for $1 apiece. One of the few items that didn’t sell was an X-ray of Olga’s shoulder, which Gregory found with a $3 price sticker slapped on it, according to Donna’s complaint with the State Bar of Texas.
When Gregory confronted Dexel, who didn’t respond to a Houston Press interview request, about the X-ray that also listed Olga’s date of birth and Social Security number, “He told me that they tried to sell it so that parents could teach their children how to play doctor.”
A month after Gregory usurped Dexel as his mother’s guardian, Donna’s State Bar of Texas complaint alleges that Dexel withdrew $16,340.18 from Olga’s Wells Fargo account (because he was still listed as a co-signer) and made out a cashier’s check payable to himself, according to a bank statement and check image examined by the Press. The withdrawal took Olga’s account down to a big fat $0.
“The whole system is rigged. It’s one big scam,” Gregory says about Harris County probate court, which critics allege is a corrupt, freewheeling operation that allows judges’ favorite appointees, who are also close friends and campaign donors, to bleed the estates of the helpless and vulnerable. Naysayers of court-appointed guardians believe that attorneys prey on family drama to charge astronomical fees and that judges aren’t doing enough to stop them.
Even though probate law is a complicated field that requires specialized attorneys, only 20 of the judges in Texas’s 254 counties have legal-studies degrees and professional law experience, according to Judge Mike Wood, who’s in charge of Harris County Probate Court No. 2. “The rest are farmers, car dealers and insurance salesmen, so probate law is written to be run by non-lawyers,” says Wood. Travis County Probate Court Judge Guy Herman, one of Texas’s presiding state statutory probate judges, adds, “Non-lawyer judges sometimes don’t seem to know or understand their duties and obligations” because of a lack of resources in rural areas.
Unlike probate courts out in the sticks, Harris County’s four probate judges and Herman think that statutory probate courts in Texas’s resource-rich metropolitan areas — which include Bexar, Collin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Galveston, Harris, Hidalgo, Tarrant and Travis counties — are well-oiled machines. Herman, who has been a point person for probate legislation since 1985, says Texas’s revamping of probate statutes in 1993 brought kudos from other states.
“The system is geared to help people,” says Wright. “Sometimes things aren’t fixable when there’s dysfunction and family animosity.”
Herman couldn’t agree more. “The driver of the expense is a family feud and the children who are arguing about who should be the guardian. There’s not a single judge that likes these fights. It’s wasting the family’s money,” says Herman, who adds, “I don’t think judges are sitting around trying to be corrupt.”
However, state lawmakers thought something was awry during the 2015 Texas legislative session because Governor Greg Abbott signed yet another try at legislation designed to help families in guardianship proceedings.
“We need some sort of oversight of these court appointees, because right now, I don’t know of any,” says state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who sponsored or co-sponsored several guardianship bills.
Harris County’s four probate judges and Travis County’s Herman aren’t thrilled with many of the new laws, which force more accountability on the judges and go into effect September 1.
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht says there’s one bulletproof way to avoid potential probate court messes. During a hearing for the eventually inked House Bill 39, which will provide families with less-restrictive alternatives to guardianships, Zaffirini asked Hecht for probate court and guardianship avoidance techniques.
His response: Get along with your family members.
Good luck with that.