I miss being able to come and go, cook my own food. I just miss having a normal life. Kimberley Dayton, one of the country's top experts on guardianships and crimes against the elderly. As the U. It's been called "the ultimate scam" because of the total control judges grant guardians over their wards' lives and assets. In some courts, capacity hearings can last all of five minutes —"the express train to guardianship" is how one activist describes it.
S, "a lack of court oversight, questionable qualifications of guardians, the general lack of accountability, soaring caseloads, and poor data management" are putting millions of elderly Americans at risk, according to a study published by the National Association for Court Management. In , the U. Government Accountability Office identified hundreds of alleged cases of guardianship abuse between and involving millions of dollars in stolen funds. Lieberman was entrusted with numerous guardianship and probate cases in Atlantic County, going back to the late s.
And knowing that I have the — that court imprimatur, that court duty and responsibility imposed upon me by appointment, there is nothing that I take more seriously. In some cases, a simple signature on a legal document was all it took to give Lieberman control over her clients' assets. A bookish-looking woman with jet-black dyed, shoulder-length hair, Lieberman knew how dysfunctional the guardianship system is. It was one of the ways she was able to exploit her victims, confident that no one would notice, or care.
Barbara Martin, 54, is Hugo's niece. For 12 years, she and her husband, Ken, 64, a retired special agent with the California Bureau of Justice, were Hugo's primary caregivers, according to court documents.
Barbara Martin's late mother, Betty Pater, was Hugo's sister and the last surviving of her seven siblings. The Martins are an enigmatic, polarizing pair. The couple lives on a five-acre farmette in the Mays Landing section of Hamilton Township, Atlantic County, where they care for 96 animals, mostly dogs and cats. The Martins believed Lieberman was abusing her authority, both in Hugo's case and in several others they investigated.
Prior to Lieberman's downfall, they wrote to the governor and other state officials urging them to take action. The committee took no action, citing the Martins' pending litigation involving Lieberman. That same year, Lieberman sat on the member committee, records show. Then Barbara Lieberman got involved and the county got involved and plucked her away, and turned her life upside down.
But for years, the Martins' sometimes rambling, conspiracy-laden letters and emails to various officials got them nowhere. Anyone can file a guardianship petition seeking to have someone legally declared to be incapacitated. A spouse. A son or daughter.
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A hospital. A business partner with an ax to grind. New Jersey requires the petition to include affidavits from two doctors attesting to the person's incapacity. New Jersey's guardianship statute defines an incapacitated person as "someone who is impaired by reason of mental illness or mental deficiency to the extent that he or she lacks sufficient capacity to govern himself and manage his or her affairs.
The statute doesn't specify the diagnostic standards for making such an assessment, however. That makes guardianship cases inherently subjective. Is someone incapacitated if they habitually lose their keys, forget to pay bills, or stumble over people's names?
When medical professionals give starkly different opinions, as they did in Hugo's case, that can be a difficult call for a judge to make. Todd III, then the presiding judge of the chancery division in Atlantic County, faced during Hugo's contentious capacity trial. Though sober for years now, she has a long history of alcohol abuse that includes stints in in-patient alcohol treatment programs, court documents show.
Medications prescribed to treat depression and anxiety have helped keep her drinking and erratic behavior in check, according to the Martins. After her sister Betty Pater's death in , the Martins say, Hugo refused to take those medications and became combative and irrational.
In July , the Martins had Hugo involuntarily committed to a psychiatric emergency room at a local hospital. The hospital recommended she undergo a more comprehensive evaluation at a psychiatric clinic, medical reports show. Had Hugo simply gone to the clinic and had her medications adjusted, Barbara Martin says, "it would have worked out a lot differently.
Weeks after Hugo arrived, she tripped over a chair and fractured her right hip, medical reports show. Martin, who stepped in after her mother Betty Pater's death as Hugo's power of attorney, insists in court documents that the withdrawals were proper. The money was used for Pater's funeral and to pay Hugo's bills, Martin says. Days before Hugo's hospitalization, the county adult protection agency obtained a protective order from Todd that barred the Martins from having contact with Hugo. Todd amended the order a couple of days later to appoint Lieberman as Hugo's temporary guardian.
One of a handful of Atlantic County attorneys who regularly received such appointments, Lieberman remained in that role for 10 months, until the conclusion of Hugo's capacity trial. Every year, more than 2, New Jersey residents have capacity trials to determine if they need a guardian to manage their affairs.
Before the trial even began, the Martins filed a petition asking Todd to recuse himself from the case on the grounds that he had shown a bias against Barbara Martin during her earlier court appearances leading up to Hugo's trial. At the same time, the Martins tried to have Lieberman removed as temporary guardian because the attorney had admitted in court to having "disposed" of some of Hugo's belongings, court documents show. But I make the best ones that I can based on all the information that I have," Lieberman testified, according to the court transcript.
But I put her ahead of me. Its purpose was twofold: First, to determine if Hugo was incapacitated, and second, if she were found to be incapacitated, to appoint a permanent guardian to manage her affairs. She's able to hold a conversation with you.
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She's very alive," Haynes said, according to the court transcript. The Martins, for their part, conceded in court documents that Hugo was "partially incapacitated. The county's expert, Ken Master, who had spent 25 minutes speaking with Hugo, said she suffered from "significant cognitive impairment. Among other lapses, Hugo couldn't name her medications, she wasn't clear about her sources of income and she failed to recall having colon cancer, Master noted. The expert the Martins hired, Arnold D. Goldman, however, faulted Master for stating in court and in his report that Hugo had a history of schizophrenia.
Goldman said his own review of 10 years' worth of Hugo's medical reports found no basis for such a claim.
Master also incorrectly stated in his report that Hugo had no history of alcohol abuse, Goldman said. In his own report, Goldman stated that Hugo didn't show signs of dementia but rather "the long-term effects of chronic alcohol abuse," which he said in court were treatable with medication.
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The Martins say Hugo wrote notes to Todd asking to attend the trial and requesting that a jury decide her case, as the law allows. But Haynes, Hugo's attorney, said in court that Hugo had told him she didn't want to attend the trial. Prior to the trial, two psychiatrists who examined Hugo disagreed over whether she was well enough to attend, court records show.
Haynes said he saw no reason for his client to be there or to even speak to the judge. He also waived Hugo's right to a jury trial, court documents show. For Hugo, the stakes were huge. If the judge wasn't satisfied with her answers, it was unlikely she'd ever return to her apartment in Buena, Atlantic County. On May, 2, , the morning of the interview, Hugo was rolled into a modern, green-accented courtroom in a wheelchair she insisted she didn't need. The attorneys and the Martins were told to wait outside. Todd spent most of the interview asking Hugo routine questions dealing with such topics as her health, her treatment at Meadowview, her work and family history, her medications and income, and her relationship with the Martins.
More than a dozen times, according to the court transcript, Hugo asked the judge to repeat his questions, apparently because she was having difficulty hearing him. Her current attorney, Evelynn S. Caterson, said in court that Hugo is hearing-impaired and requires a hearing aid.
Among her other animals, Barbara Martin has a cow named Mosey, who happens to weigh about 1, pounds. Yes, Hugo responded. Weeks later, when delivering his decision, Todd said it was "clear" and "very easy" to conclude that Hugo was incapacitated, based on the medical testimony he'd heard and his own conversation with Hugo.
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