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How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable

Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Photos by Michael Barajas

Joy Powers woke from a horrific car wreck to find she'd been appointed a guardian and stripped of her rights. Months later, court-appointed fees drained her life savings

Photo: , License: N/A

A Bexar County court twice investigated whether Jack Hood was incapacitated when he contested a guardianship case involving his wife of 35 years.


Mary Dahlman's problem is all about money.

A lot of people want at the estimated $20 million trust Dahlman's deceased mother left to her and her brother. Over the past year, a flock of local probate attorneys have already drained nearly half a million dollars in fees out of that trust.

And they want more.

"I'm not dead yet," Dahlman, 67, said wryly in an interview with the Current this summer. "Obviously they can have it when I'm gone."

It's all that money that first brought Dahlman into court with Bexar County Probate Court 2 Judge Tom Rickhoff three years ago. Dahlman has a knack for explaining dizzying financial details with crystal clarity: trust managers at Falcon Bank, she claims, had begun to withhold depletion taxes from the trust, calling it principle then making Dahlman and her brother pay income tax on cash they never got. Lawyers with Falcon Bank denied they'd made a mistake, and the lawsuit was set to play out in Rickhoff's court.

That is until Rickhoff and attorneys in his court began tossing around the loaded word "incapacitated."

By summer 2011, Dahlman insisted, Rickhoff got fed up with the Falcon Bank dispute and, as she recalled it, "Judge Rickhoff comes out and says he's so tired of seeing me in his courtroom. He says, 'I'm gonna see if she needs a guardian.'"

+++++++++++

Stripping away someone's rights in court can be messy, expensive business, especially when family squabbles or large, contested estates exacerbate things.

In Texas it's estimated some 30,000 to 50,000 disabled and elderly persons have been declared incapacitated and ordered into guardianships, losing the right to decide where they live or how they spend their money. Nationally the number of those declared incapacitated is rising fast as baby boomers age. Reports of mistreatment, neglect, and problems involving both relatives and non-family members appointed by courts to protect them have also risen, according to reports from the federal Government Accountability Office, which in 2010 and 2011 issued warnings of increasing numbers of elderly and disabled people neglected and ripped-off under guardianships.

With guardianship hanging over her head, Dahlman's Falcon Bank lawsuit was put on hold, and it's been a fiasco ever since, she says. William Bailey, a court-appointed attorney and a regular in Rickhoff's court, investigated years of Dahlman's financial statements, scouring through every check she'd written, each transaction, every gift to friends and family. Bailey's conclusion: People for years had been financially exploiting Dahlman, making her no longer mentally fit to watch over her own sizeable estate. He urged Rickhoff to appoint a guardian to freeze, take over, and manage Dahlman's finances for her, meanwhile Dahlman's three estranged daughters, perhaps out of fear that their mother was burning through their inheritance, filed motions to have the court appoint a guardian.

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