published Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Bar officials debate Tennessee's conservatorship law

Officials from the Tennessee Bar Association heard a broad sweep of feedback on the state's conservatorship law here Wednesday.

Bar Association officials began a series of four hearings across the state in September in Nashville and ended the public events Tuesday in Chattanooga.

Over nearly two hours lawyers, advocates and some who said they had suffered harm under the current conservatorship laws voiced their thoughts.

Conservatorship is a legal process to appoint a person who is responsible to make decisions for someone who is unable to care for himself.

A 54-year-old man who asked not to be identified recounted how he lost more than $2 million while under conservatorship for three years because of alcoholism.

He lashed out at attorneys he dealt with who, he said, attempted to bilk him of $180,000 in legal fees during the process.

"It is sanctioned vanity, and I'm astounded by it," the man said. "What I experienced was very, very far from what you call justice and very, very close to what we used to call tyranny."

The man admitted he was likely a minority in what the law typically handles.

Local attorneys applauded the Hamilton County Chancery Court's work in conservatorship cases and some called for the county's standards to be used as a model statewide.

Local attorney Linda Norwood applauded the conservatorship and guardian ad litem systems in place and said they offer more protection for parties involved than powers of attorney.

A group of Bar Association volunteer attorneys is scheduled to meet Saturday and review input from the four public hearings. That information will be reviewed by the association and forwarded as potential legislation in 2013, if members determine changes are necessary.

Local attorney Richard Pettit recommended mediation as a step in the conservatorship process.

Mediation involves out-of-court meetings with parties involved in which a qualified mediator, often an attorney, hears concerns and makes decisions on the legal arrangements.

"Very often it has been my experience that the families are not talking at all," Pettit said.

Anthony Palmieri, senior auditor for the Clerk and Comptroller's office in Palm Beach County, Fla., shared details of reforms that office has taken to curb elder abuse through conservatorship cases.

Changes in recent years included extended audits, coordination with local prosecutors and a hotline to report problems with conservatorship.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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