How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable
Published: September 5, 2012
OCA records, which Rickhoff and others claim to be inaccurate, show that in fiscal 2011 Rickhoff approved $1.84 million in fees to attorneys in his court, slightly below Bexar County Probate Judge Spencer, who approved $1.94 million in fees that year.
One of the first things 88-year-old World War II veteran Jack Hood tells you is that he doesn't suffer fools gladly.
Hood wound up before Rickhoff two years ago while battling for guardianship over the estate he shares with his wife of 35 years, Billie Ray Hood, who suffers from Alzheimer's.
Hood's stepdaughter and her attorney have argued Hood isn't qualified to take care of his wife or manage the assets he shares with her. Last year Rickhoff signed an order channeling much of what Hood and his wife own to Hood's stepdaughter, who Hood says has mismanaged the money.
Section 883 of the Texas Probate Code says that when one spouse is incapacitated the other "acquires full power to manage, control, and dispose of the entire community estate as community administrator." It's a section of the probate code Rickhoff overlooked. And as the court battle dragged on, Rickhoff twice sought rulings on Hood's competency, the first step down that road of appointing a guardian. "Frankly, I'm starting to think Jack is always unhappy, you know. He is just an unhappy guy," transcripts from hearings last year quote Rickhoff as saying. The judge later insisted Hood might be more happy moving out of the home he shares with his wife. "If you don't mind, is there any way Jack would want to have his own little man cave somewhere and come home and watch TV as he wishes," Rickhoff asks Hood's lawyer, Claudia Smith, "and have any kind of little TV, a big TV, whatever TV he wants, and go see the guys."
As the case played out, Rickhoff continued to assert Hood may be incapacitated. "The federal government, I'll tell you folks, this doesn't mean it applies to him, but the statistic is that everybody in America who is 85 has some dementia. … I used to say to y'all that it might be part of his condition that he is having with all these recalcitrant problems."
Claudia Smith and others who have practiced in Rickhoff's court say they're troubled by off-record in-chambers meetings where deals are worked and the judge makes up his mind. When Smith went before the state's Fourth Court of Appeals trying to overturn Rickhoff's ruling in the case, she said she was never given the opportunity to put Hood on the stand to give reasons why he should be appointed guardian of his wife.
"When you're in Judge Rickhoff's court, nine times out of 10 the first thing you do is come into chambers and have an informal chat," said attorney Laura Cavaretta, arguing against the appeal. "And I think, unfortunately, a lot of things get resolved that way. It's kind of everybody's sort of agreed this is what we're going to do and then we go out and make a record."
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