Feb. 15: 2 years and $672,808 gone

An Excelsior woman joined the growing ranks of Minnesotans who lose control of their finances to lightly regulated guardians.

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Eighty-five-year-old Peggy Greer lives alone at her home in Excelsior, despite losing all of her money during a two-year period in which a guardian and conservator ruled virtually all aspects of her life.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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It still feels like heaven for Peggy Greer to wake up in her own bed. One of her sons checks on her each day, but she's happy enough on her own in her Excelsior home, writing stories alongside her 20-year-old cat, Nyse.

Greer will be 86 in March. That month will mark the fourth anniversary of her strange journey through the justice system in which she overcame a life crisis but her assets disappeared with the approval of a Hennepin County judge.

For more than two years, Greer was among a growing number of Minnesotans living under the authority of a guardian and conservator. The court- appointed officials had broad power over her life once a judge deemed Greer incapable of making decisions about her housing, health care or finances.

Disturbed by the decisions made on her behalf, Greer repeatedly fought to regain control of her affairs. During that time, the guardian, Professional Fiduciary Inc. (PFI), and the conservator, Wells Fargo Elder Services, spent more than $600,000 of her money, much of it on health care for her that some family members called excessive. Nearly $100,000 went to lawyers.

"My money was all used up, was all gone, without my knowledge or OK or anything," Greer said.

The system was set up to protect the vulnerable. Guardians make decisions about an individual's living situation and medical care. Conservators manage a person's finances with the purpose of preserving as much as possible. But it is an industry with little regulation: In Minnesota, there are no licensing requirements for guardians and conservators.

Last month, a state study concluded that the system has inadequate procedures for dealing with complaints, evaluating a ward's well-being and keeping track of money.

Nationally, groups that represent guardians and conservators and senior citizens have raised concerns about how well the courts oversee the actions of guardians and conservators, even as the nation's aging population places greater and greater demands on them.

"It needs improvement and it needs more resources," said Naomi Karp, a policy adviser for the AARP's Public Policy Institute who has testified in Congress about how the system doesn't always protect vulnerable people. "We need to beef up the system so that fewer of them fall between the cracks."

In Greer's case, in the spring of 2007, the guardian no longer opposed having her rights restored. The change coincided with the fact that Greer's assets had been exhausted.

Representatives of PFI said they always acted in Greer's best interest and blamed the high costs on the family's contentious behavior. "PFI and Wells Fargo went to extraordinary lengths for this woman," said Ruth Ostrom, a lawyer for PFI. "We were not in any way trying to deplete Peggy Greer of her assets and walk away."

Asked whether Wells Fargo had properly managed Greer's assets, Peggy Gunn, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said: "Every action that Wells Fargo took in this matter was approved by the court, and that includes all the accounting for all the expenses."

Michael Greer, one of Greer's two surviving sons, has a different view. "It's a money-producing machine, it's a livelihood for these folks," he said. "Once you get a guardian, and conservator, it's as if a person's hands and feet are tied and their mouth is bound with tape. ... I was dumbfounded at how difficult it was to unwind this thing."

Guardians and conservators preside over the lives of about 22,500 Minnesotans, many struggling with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. That number grows by about 3,000 a year.

Entering the system

A lifelong vegetarian and animal lover, Peggy Greer grew up in south Minneapolis and raised a daughter and three sons through two marriages and divorces.

In the summer of 2004, after she turned 81, her life was heading toward crisis. Her eldest son, Charles Heintz III, was living with her in Excelsior, unemployed and addicted to drugs. After a back injury, Greer herself became dependent on morphine.

In July 2004, Greer's daughter, Judith Wryk, filed a petition in Hennepin County Probate Court asking that she and her brother Terry Greer be appointed her mother's guardians and conservators.

Her mother was "suffering from dementia and chemical dependency" that made her "unable to arrange for her medical care," the petition said. She was "unable to manage her estate and is vulnerable to financial exploitation," especially since Peggy Greer was about to inherit a large sum of money from her late sister.

Not everyone in the family wanted to take this step. Before the family could agree on how to proceed, a home health care worker checked on Greer and found a disturbing scene.

Greer was malnourished, dehydrated and suffered from bedsores. That day, in December 2004, she was removed from the home by Hennepin County Adult Protection and committed to a hospital to wean her off painkillers.

In the face of the crisis but still divided, the family agreed that a third party should take over the mother's decision-making.

In March 2005, Hennepin Probate Court Referee Richard Wolfson appointed PFI of Minneapolis as Greer's guardian and Wells Fargo as the conservator. William Sanden, a Wells Fargo vice president, would handle the account.

Greer was no longer considered chemically dependent or suffering from dementia. Still, Wolfson deemed her unable to arrange medical care or understand her condition.

By then, Greer was already living in Hillcrest nursing home, which cost about $5,700 a month. She was eager to go home, she regularly told her guardian. She learned quickly that she had lost the power to decide where she lived.

"We were very aware of Ms. Greer's wishes," said Ostrom, PFI's attorney. "It's also the guardian's role to protect the ward ... if the wishes are counter to her best interest."

Greer's condition had improved markedly, and the guardian was already discussing how to move her back home. But there was an impediment.

Charles Heintz was still living in the Excelsior home. The guardian would not put her back in a house with him.

Terry Greer tried to get his mother into an assisted living center, half the price of Hillcrest and closer to family. That was rejected -- despite guardian guidelines calling for the "least restrictive" arrangements.

Ostrom, PFI's attorney, said: "The reason we didn't move her is because it would cost a lot to get her discharged from one nursing home and admitted to a new one when we all anticipated she would be returned to her home pretty quickly."

That didn't happen. Peggy and Terry Greer filed a petition in August 2005 seeking to replace the guardian.

It failed. But it did start a frenzy of court filings, meetings and hearings. The lawyers' billable hours grew. Under Minnesota law, the protected person must pay the legal fees of all parties involved.

In March 2006, after a year under a conservator, the attorney's fees totaled at least $45,000. With other costs, such as the nursing home, Greer's $226,800 inheritance from her sister -- a justification for having a conservator in the first place -- was gone.

Now the conservator looked for other sources of money to pay the mounting bills.

Eyeing the house

In April 2006, Sanden, the Wells Fargo VP, petitioned the court to sell Greer's home, even as the guardian was trying to arrange for her to move back into it.

"The protected person is not able to return to independent living," Sanden wrote in court papers as part of his justification.

Wolfson eventually agreed to grant a reverse mortgage -- a loan arrangement in which a bank gradually gains equity in a house in exchange for providing payments that allow homeowners to stay in their homes. In this case, the money was disbursed in a lump sum and used to pay debts.

The bank that received the reverse mortgage? Wells Fargo.

Gunn, the Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said the family did not oppose the reverse mortgage in court. But Terry Greer said their attorney at the time did not follow the family's wishes. He, his brother Michael and his mother wrote to the judge weeks later seeking to stop the reverse mortgage.

In November 2006, the situation took an unexpected step toward resolution. Charles Heintz died, his body exhausted by years of addiction.

Within weeks, his mother moved home.

Pricey home health aides

Peggy Greer wasn't living alone. She had 24-7 care from a home health agency. Because she could take care of most daily functions, the ever-present aides watched television, read magazines, talked on their cell phones. All at a cost of about $26,000 a month.

In desperation, family members consulted with Greer's doctor at Hillcrest. He examined her and recommended discontinuing the 24-7 care immediately.

The guardian refused.

"Usually, the guardian is the one who is a liaison between the protected person and the doctor," Ostrom said. "In this case, the Greers went and found him on their own and then presented us with this report. We had no idea this was coming. Again there are procedures, court procedures, on how these things are handled."

By the time the guardian agreed that the care should be scaled back, in late January 2007, it had cost more than $55,000.

Shortly after that, Greer wrote to Sanden, asking for $1,000 to fulfill a lifelong dream. She wanted to self-publish a novel she had written about an American Indian, titled "Face of Light, Face of Stone." She was told she didn't have any money left.

In the ensuing months, PFI reached the conclusion that Greer no longer needed its services.

"Once the money ran out, almost to the day, suddenly the care was no longer needed," Terry Greer said.

Tracy Allen, the PFI guardian, said what changed was the willingness of Terry and Michael Greer to agree to a care plan for their mother, as well as the guardian's thorough confirmation of Greer's recovery.

Yet at a March 2, 2007, hearing, Wolfson, the probate court referee, rejected Greer's petition to restore her rights. A snowstorm had prevented her from attending the hearing.

Wolfson acknowledged that the costs of Greer's home health care had been "large" but said they were "not unreasonable" given the "chaotic situation" of her return home.

Three days later, still seeking money to pay debts, Sanden once again tried to put Greer's home up for sale, even though she had been living there on her own for months.

This time, Sanden petitioned the court, Greer's poverty was the justification.

He wrote that Greer needed nursing care to be at home, "but does not have the cash to sustain that care at home." His solution: Move her out of the house and into assisted living.

Greer and her sons raced to get the conservatorship ended before the hearing on Wells Fargo's proposal to sell the house.

They prevailed. On July 6, 2007, with the guardian's consent, Wolfson terminated the guardianship and granted Greer's petition for a restoration to capacity, a rare occurrence.

The final accounting of Greer's conservatorship was approved in October 2007. Total spent on her behalf since March 2005: $672,808. PFI had earned more than $11,000, while Wells Fargo earned $11,000, plus the fees from the reverse mortgage. Still owed by Greer: $48,388. Total assets: zero.

Under terms of the reverse mortgage, Greer can stay in her house as long as the taxes are paid. Her retirement accounts liquidated, she lives on Social Security.

"I shouldn't have had to go through all of this to, in the end, get my rights restored," Greer said.

She doesn't understand why all of her money was spent. Mostly she's content to simply be home. She still dreams of publishing her stories, written longhand, about a dog she once had or a pet monkey.

When she lays her head on her pillow, Nyse the cat leaps onto the covers and curls up. Greer can see, on the opposite wall, a framed portrait of her late son Charles. He's smiling at her.

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