Judy Truitt wanted to make sure her 87-year-old mother had a safe place to live when she moved to Minnesota from California last fall. So Truitt paid $5,675 to hold a room and prepay the first month's fees at a Golden Valley assisted-living facility.

Her mother, Bonnie VanWagner, died before ever setting foot in Country Villa. Judy and her husband, Matt, thought they would be able to get some of their money back, but instead the Wisconsin company that owns Country Villa billed them an additional $1,470. That's because residents are supposed to give Country Villa a month's notice that they're leaving.

"I just don't understand why I have to pay for all the meals, all the cleaning, all the laundry services," Judy Truitt said. "I paid for all of that and she never got any of it."

Laurie Bebo, president and CEO of Assisted Living Concepts Inc., said the contract clearly states that the initial $2,000 payment is a nonrefundable fee and that the company requires a 30-day notice to terminate the lease agreement.

"Our agreements do end with the passing away of the resident once the apartment is cleaned out," Bebo wrote in an e-mail to Whistleblower.

Experts in long-term care say that consumers often have little recourse in situations such as this one, because the facilities have few restrictions on their fees and contract conditions.

Deb Holtz, Minnesota's ombudsman for long-term care, said her office often receives calls from family members who are confused about upfront fees to long-term care facilities, which don't always carry the same legal protections as traditional rental security deposits.

"Consumers and advocates in the industry recognize that it's time we need to relook at this whole process ... and what's best for consumers as they're looking through these very complicated choices," Holtz said. "Unfortunately, it's often at a time when families and people are in crisis."

Plans fell apart after health problems

Last August, the Truitts began preparing for Judy's mother to leave her lifelong home in California because her caregiver, Judy's sister, was dying of cancer. They chose Country Villa because it was close to their home in Plymouth and offered three meals a day, housekeeping, laundry and assistance with medicine.

In mid-September, Matt Truitt met with Country Villa's director while Judy was in California. He signed the lease Sept. 27 and paid the $2,000 deposit and $3,202 for the month of October, but he didn't get a copy of the lease. Days later, the director asked for $473 to cover the rest of September.

The Truitts said they paid for October's fees in advance because they were told that the facility's staff needed a few weeks to get the room ready. It also meant that VanWagner's furniture could be stored there until she arrived.

But VanWagner's declining health quickly put a stop to all the plans. She broke her pelvis and suffered a stroke the first week of October. Judy called Country Villa to let them know her mother wouldn't be moving in and to ask whether they could get any money back, but she said she was told that the decision needed to be made by the corporate office. On Nov. 7, VanWagner died.

The Truitts were still waiting for a response from Assisted Living Concepts when they received a bill at the end of November for $1,470. Since the facility had considered Oct. 13 as the official move-out notice, they billed for the first two weeks of November.

"It seems like an awful lot of money for someone who never stayed there, never got a single service," Matt Truitt said.

Because the Truitts hadn't received a response from Assisted Living Concepts, they contacted Whistleblower. Two days after Whistleblower's inquiry to Country Villa, the Truitts received a copy of the lease but didn't get an answer about a refund.

The contract that Matt Truitt signed with Country Villa includes a clause that the agreement will terminate automatically if the tenant dies, but the individual's estate will be responsible for the basic service fee until the day that personal property is removed. The contract also says that if the agreement is terminated, Country Villa will refund any unused portion of the fees. Under state law, a landlord is allowed to collect two months' rent after a tenant dies.

Housing providers that work with senior citizens are used to dealing with the deaths of residents and many of the facilities try to work out a satisfactory resolution, said Barb Blumer, an attorney who represents assisted-living providers but does not represent Assisted Living Concepts.

"They can be nicer than the law permits them to be," Blumer said.

Blumer said residents and their families need to make sure they understand the fees they are paying and whether they are refundable. Since assisted living often includes health care services, the resident may be paying additional fees that aren't covered under rental law. As long as they disclose the specifics of the fees, there aren't many regulations on what assisted-living facilities can charge, Blumer said.

Holtz said families need to look beyond the sales pitch they get when they visit a senior housing facility and ask for a copy of the facility's Uniform Consumer Information Guide, a state-mandated document that outlines the facility's services, staffing, building and payment details.

The Truitts filed a complaint with state Attorney General Lori Swanson, but they decided to pay the $1,470 after receiving a collection notice.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628