Catherine O’Connor insists that she used the power of attorney granted by her elderly mother to help manage her affairs as she slowly succumbed to dementia.
Other family members say that O’Connor used the legal document to help herself to her mother’s riches.
Now it’s up to the courts in Carver and Kandiyohi counties to determine who’s right.
Prosecutors in those counties recently filed felony theft and exploitation charges against O’Connor, 61, of Burnsville.
O’Connor vehemently denied the allegations in a phone interview shortly before her first appearance in the Kandiyohi County case this week.
“I have no doubt that I’m going to be cleared,” O’Connor said.
The use of power-of-attorney documents by caregivers has become increasingly common as the population ages — as has abuse of those powers. Power of attorney means granting written permission for someone else to handle your property and money matters.
The Legislature attempted to tighten the law in 2013 and 2014 by requiring that anyone given power of attorney keep careful financial records and provide an accounting if requested by interested parties. The law also set limits on “self-gifting” by the person holding the powers.
For years, accusations flew between O’Connor and several of her four siblings over the care of their mother, Patricia P. Heinrich. Heinrich, who was named Mrs. Minnesota in 1960 and went on to work for Dale Carnegie and Heinrich Envelope Co. in Minneapolis, amassed an estate worth over a million dollars. Though her brother John says he steered clear of the dispute, other siblings in accused Catherine of isolating Heinrich and then manipulating her into signing over the deed to her Edina home. They also accused her of stealing her mother’s belongings and selling them on eBay.
Heinrich died last September at age 87.
Before her death, the family’s feud resulted in the appointment of First Fiduciary Corp. as an emergency conservator. A Carver County judge ordered a forensic audit, which raised serious questions about the transfer of Heinrich’s Edina home to O’Connor, as well as $453,350 in gifts O’Connor helped her mother make to family members between 2011 and 2013.
“She took that house from my mother,” her brother Tom O’Connor said in a recent interview. He said Catherine O’Connor manipulated Heinrich and took her money, jewelry and furniture. “But the worst part was how my mother suffered,” he said.
O’Connor has boxes of court documents, financial records and recordings that she says will exonerate her.
“I’ve got pictures of what they’re saying were taken on eBay, and I can prove my mother gave them to me,” O’Connor said. “I’ve had these items for years.”
Carver County filed the first charges against O’Connor last month. The complaint says between October 2012 and February 2014, O’Connor used “undue influence, harassment or duress” to gain control of Heinrich’s home at 4219 Scott Terrace in Edina. The charges include two felonies and a gross misdemeanor, each of which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $100,000. According to the complaint, family members said that Heinrich had wanted her assets distributed among her survivors, excluding her youngest son.
Heinrich’s health problems first appeared a decade before her death when she was hospitalized for depression. Testing showed brain damage due to insufficient blood supply or possibly several small strokes. She was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2010 and within a year, her doctor was noting the family’s concerns about her driving and short-term memory. She made frequent changes to her will and could no longer figure out how to answer the phone when it rang.
O’Connor intervened in 2012 when Heinrich tried to transfer some of her stock holdings to her son Jay O’Connor, arguing that her mother lacked the capacity to make that decision. Carver County court records indicate that the stock went missing after that.
Catherine O’Connor filed a complaint against her brother Jay, alleging that he had exerted undue influence on their mother, but the complaint was found to be false and was dismissed, the criminal complaint says. It says that by October 2012, Catherine O’Connor was able to become her mother’s sole power of attorney without consulting with her siblings, and that she then began paying herself $500 a month from her mother’s assets.
Tom O’Connor said that he was supposed to be appointed power of attorney together with his sister to act as a check on her authority. But he only realized after he signed the form that he’d been listed as an alternate in the event of Catherine O’Connor’s death, and her lawyer refused to change it.
By the time Heinrich signed a “transfer on death” deed for her Edina property that year, her dementia had deepened to the point where she could barely function, court papers say. Dr. William Orr, an expert in geriatric medicine and forensic psychiatry, interviewed Heinrich in 2014 and reviewed her medical files before concluding that she did not understand the value of her assets and could not meaningfully participate in their distribution.
Carver County prosecutors say that Catherine O’Connor intentionally abused her power-of-attorney position for her own enrichment.
Kandiyohi County charged O’Connor on Aug. 1 with one count of felony theft related to the sale of her mother’s personal property on eBay.
Even so, she says that she’s innocent.
“I’m the only one who took care of my mother and I’m the only one being prosecuted,” she said.