A Lowcountry Family says they’ve been funding their own nightmare. The Court has control of all their money, and it’s going to pay for attorneys and court fees they don’t want. The family can’t get out of the conservatorship without a judge ruling.
When the courts take control of your finances it's called a conservatorship. They are usually established for the protection of an incapacitated person's finances.
We first introduced you to Benjamin Bennett and his family in the Fall of 2017.
They had been fighting against a Court Appointed conservatorship for nearly a year.
Mr. Bennett’s daughter, Melissa, says Mr. Bennett’s former doctor recommended the conservatorship to protect him and a large inheritance. According to the doctor's report, Bennett showed signs of dementia and had voiced concerns about having so much money in the bank. He was also dealing with an infection that caused confusion.
In November 2016, the court called an emergency hearing in Probate Court, citing concerns Mr. Bennett was unable to handle his money. The court drained his bank account, redirected his social security checks, and appointed Family Services to oversee his finances.
Once that happened, Benjamin and his wife of 60 years, Ida, had to ask permission to spend money on everything from dentures to church tithes.
“It’s so much to wrap yourself around.” Ida told News 2 during an interview in the couple’s home.
Family Services must approve and allocate any spending for the couple.
“When you’re children need help and you could help them but now you can’t on account on someone else having control of your money, it hurts,” Benjamin told News 2.
Meanwhile $1,100 in court fees, more than $6,000 in court appointed attorney fees, and nearly $21,000 in service fees to Family Services was taken from the Bennett’s account in 2017.
Two court appointed health experts examined Mr. Bennett to gauge his mental capacity. According to those tests, both exams found Mr. Bennett is not incapacitated; should be able to handle his own money; and showed normal signs of aging. They also found the Bennett’s children supportive.
One court appointed doctor charged the family $850 the other charged $300 for those capacity tests.
The final test was submitted to the court on October 20, 2017, nearly a year after the court took control of their money. It took 187 days before the Bennett’s court appointed attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case based on those tests.
“It’s about time for them to do this,” Ida told News 2 during an interview after the motion was filed.
That motion was filed a week ago. Consultants tell me there’s no deadline for the judge to rule.
An attorney, who consulted with News 2 on this story, says once the courts intervene, the process has to run its full course. The goal is to protect vulnerable adults.
The Bennett’s say it’s not necessary and has only cost them money and caused them frustration.
Melissa says with eight other siblings, the family is equipped the handle her parents' affairs. According to court and police reports on the case obtained by News 2 from Probate Court, there had been no signs of mistreatment or mismanagement of the Bennett's money. Ida is Mr. Bennett’s court appointed guardian, but even she can't access their retirement without permission.
"I've never been through nothing like this in my whole life," Mrs. Bennett said.
News 2 sent multiple requests to the court appointed attorneys for interviews. They didn’t respond.
The Charleston County Probate Court Judge, Judge Irvin G. Condon, told News 2 he couldn’t legally discuss the case. He declined to speak on camera on the topic of conservatorships, but sent information via email.
Judge Condon sets the fees for everyone involved in handling conservatorships. He capped lawyer fees at $200 per hour. Doctors collect between $450 and $1,200 for exams. Social workers earn $275 to $300 for exams. Conservators, like Family Services, collect roughly one percent of the money they manage each quarter. For the Bennett family, with roughly $500,000 in the account, that's $5,000 every three months.
To avoid the court interventions, Judge Condon recommends establishing a Last Will and Testament, a Declaration of Desire for Natural Death (otherwise known as a Living Will), a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare, and a Durable Power of Attorney for Business Affairs. Having the Durable Power of Attorney and the Health Care Power of Attorney would allow a family to bypass the Conservatorship/Guardianship procedures.
Melissa says the tests and stress of the legal process are taking their toll on Mr. Bennett's health. Health records show he's losing weight.
"What he has lost is more than the money now," she explained. Melissa said he's been depressed and unable to participate in his normal activities.Getting out of a conservatorship is a long shot. Fewer than one percent of cases are dissolved by the court each year in Charleston County. The typical case that is dissolved is an accident case where the person is in intensive care then regains capacity. That means 99% of cases are dissolved only after a ward dies.
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Call Collett: We're funding our own nightmare