It’s often said that art imitates life. If that’s true of the popular movie, I Care a Lot, life can get pretty scary in the world of conservators and conservatorship.
Conservatorship is designed to protect a person who has, for any number of reasons, become incapable of managing his or her financial and/or personal affairs. Most people create a Designation of Conservator as a standard part of their estate planning.
In I Care a Lot, however, the film’s writers twist that idea to tell a rather dark (if humorously presented) story about what might happen if someone were to take advantage of such a situation.
Here’s the synopsis of the movie from the IMDb site:
Poised with sharklike self-assurance, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is a professional, court-appointed guardian for dozens of elderly wards whose assets she seizes and cunningly bilks through dubious but legal means. It’s a well-oiled racket that Marla and her business-partner and lover Fran (Eiza González) use with brutal efficiency on their latest “cherry,” Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) – a wealthy retiree with no living heirs or family. But when their mark turns out to have an equally shady secret of her own and connections to a volatile gangster (Peter Dinklage), Marla is forced to level up in a game only predators can play – one that’s neither fair, nor square.
It is definitely a great movie, one I’ve recommended to several friends and family members, but—as I mentioned—it does put conservators/conservatorship in a pretty horrific light, so much so (spoiler alert) that people take justice to their own hands.
Don’t worry. In this case life doesn’t have to imitate art.
While our system in Connecticut is far from perfect, and elder exploitation is, sadly, an increasingly frequent and serious concern, there are some significant protections in place to help ensure that situations like the one portrayed in the movie never come to pass in real life:
- Unlike in the movie, the person to be conserved, who is called the respondent, does receive notice prior to the hearing that will decide his or her fate. Sometimes, a temporary conservator is assigned on the ex parte basis (meaning the respondent does not receive notice), but only in extreme cases in which there is the risk of immediate and irreparable harm or danger to the respondent. However, in such cases, the appointment is only valid for 3 days, and a continued hearing with proper notice to the respondent must occur within that time period.
- If necessary, to ensure the respondent is able to attend the hearing, the court will hold hearings at alternate locations, such as at a nursing facility or at the respondent’s home. (There are current additional restrictions related to the pandemic, but these efforts are still made.)
- The respondent has the right to hire his or her own attorney. If the respondent does not exercise this option, the court will appoint an attorney for the respondent.
- The respondent’s attorney must represent and advocate for the respondent’s wishes, even if the attorney disagrees with those wishes.
- Known family members are notified of the hearing.
- Even if a conservator is appointed as a result of the hearing, the conservator must facilitate the maximum level of independence for the conserved person.
- The conservator needs prior court approval to sell the conserved person’s home or to move the conserved person. As part of this process, the positions of the conserved person and his or her family members will be heard and considered by judges.
- Whether conservators have a right to restrict visitation is a highly debated issue, and different judges take different positions with regards to this. For a court to agree to restrict visitation, there must be significant evidence about harm caused by the visits. In general, the courts are very mindful about how restrictions on visitation can affect social relationships.
- It is also worth noting that Connecticut provides further legal protection for elder financial abuse under Conn. Gen. Stat. 17b-462.
Your best bet for a happy ending is proactive planning with a professional.
Despite these protections, clients who come to me after the appointment of a conservator often feel that they were not able to effectively present their positions and evidence. They often feel overpowered or overshadowed by more assertive attorneys in the room. Even with open-minded judges who follow the law, first impressions matter, and it is hard to replace an already appointed fiduciary.
This is why, whether you are the respondent or another interested party, such as a family member, it is highly advisable that you are represented by an attorney of your choice from the very beginning.
If you decide to watch I Care a Lot, I hope you enjoy it. And I hope you remember that, despite the nightmare story of the movie, conservatorships are taken very seriously by Connecticut judges.
In the appropriate situations, conservatorships are necessary to protect people from fraudsters or other people asserting undue influence, or when the respondent did not do proper estate planning documents prior to his or her mental decline. They don’t have to be scary. In fact, they can be very reassuring and offer peace of mind for both the respondent and the family.
If you have questions about conservatorship or any other aspect of your estate planning, please feel free to reach out to our team any time. We’d be happy to share our experience and insights.
What is a Conservatorship?
Duties of a Conservator in Connecticut
Applying for Conservatorship in Connecticut
How the Probate Court Decides Conservatorship Appointments
How to Protect Yourself from Elder Financial Abuse
Undue Influence: How It Happens and What You Can Do