Guardians serve as court-appointed decision-makers

Guardians serve as court-appointed decision-makers

In the broad spectrum of potentially lucrative Illinois political appointments, there is one that some appointees seek out of a desire to help those who can't help themselves.

It's the post of county public guardian, a court-appointed decision-maker for disabled adults who are unable to make decisions for themselves about their personal care or finances.

And while the guardians are paid, the money may not always be commensurate with the work.

"It's not a job many people want," observed Deb Feinen, a Champaign attorney whose firm specializes in setting up guardianships. "If you look at the history of who's done it, there have been lawyers who have quickly figured out this is not a money-making proposition. There is somebody who calls every day or you have family members calling every day."

Champaign and Vermilion counties have two men in those posts who happen to be co-workers in their full-time jobs. They are University of Illinois police officers who came to their part-time jobs as public guardian through different avenues.

John Brown, 45, of Savoy, knew a lot about the Champaign County job because his late father, Joe Brown of Rantoul, held the post in Champaign County for several years. When Joe Brown's health was on the decline for the last couple of years before his 2011 death, John Brown said, "my dad did all the brain work and I did the labor." Brown got the job after his father's death.

Matt Myrick, 43, of Oakwood, on the other hand, had never heard of the Vermilion County post prior to late 2009.

A part-time real estate agent, Myrick said someone called the broker Myrick worked for to see if the broker might be interested since the guardian is often called upon to sell real estate for a ward. His broker friend wasn't interested, but Myrick was. He got the job in early 2010.

"I've always had the attitude of when something falls in your lap, you might as well see what happens. You never know who you're going to meet and what you'll learn," said Myrick, who, like his colleague Brown, has learned a lot, especially the need for being prepared for the unexpected.

The governor appoints the county public guardian, who must be confirmed by the Senate. The term is four years. Currently, there are 26 Illinois counties where the position is vacant, presumably because there's not a great need in those counties or because no one wants the job. Guardians are not required to live in the county for which they serve as guardian, although Brown and Myrick do.

The job of the county public guardian is to help those disabled people without anyone else to act on their behalf who have assets in excess of $25,000.

For those with less than $25,000, the office of the state guardian is appointed. That office has about 5,000 wards statewide. There is a regional office in Champaign, one of eight in the state, that serves 26 counties in central Illinois.

Champaign County Judge Holly Clemons, who hears guardianship cases, surveyed several Illinois counties a few years ago to see what they were paying their public guardians.

"It was all over the place with respect to fees," she said. "Many northern counties have attorneys do it, and they were paying them up to $200 an hour. John (Brown) is doing a lot of errand-running, a lot of hands-on type of things," Clemons said.

With the approval of Presiding Judge Tom Difanis, Clemons set the hourly rate for the public guardian at $60. The money comes out of the ward's assets and the fee can be higher or lower, depending on the complexity of the person's needs.

"It's not a glamorous job," Brown said. "Your wages are determined by the court."

A guardian can be appointed for the person to make decisions about medical care or getting services or for the estate to manage the money, pay bills, protect or liquidate assets, or for both roles.

Brown said he currently has eight wards and is resolving the estates of two people who died without a will and had no one designated to carry out that task. Myrick said he has about 11 people for whom he is either guardian of the person or estate or both and another four estates he's administering.

Brown said he's been appointed for people who have been exploited financially, sometimes by their own family.

One of his wards is an elderly woman who repeatedly fell victim to con artists by sending money to them in foreign countries via Western Union money orders.

"Even after being appointed guardian, she would still try to respond to these notices in the mail and people would still try to call her. It's sad. I've seen what she had at one time," he said.

He ended up with her case because someone in the apartment complex where the woman lived noticed she was having trouble paying bills and contacted Family Services, an agency that took steps to have a guardian appointed.

In another case, Brown was appointed because the judge, in reviewing annual reports submitted to the court by a woman's son who was acting as her power of attorney, noticed that he was paying for things with his mother's money that clearly were not benefiting her in the nursing home.

When Brown got involved, he did a little more digging and got a friend who investigates fraud for the Illinois State Police to take a look. The son ended up being criminally charged.

Myrick said he sometimes gets appointed to assist veterans who live at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville.

"I recently placed a guy who had been in the VA for quite a while. I found him a place to live in southern Illinois near his hometown. His sister was really appreciative. It makes you feel good. The ward may not understand or may be resistant. The family is still appreciative," Myrick said.

Myrick said a ward's estate may start out over the $25,000 threshold, which allows him to be paid, but that figure can quickly diminish.

That's because he's paying bills that may have gone unpaid for a while, liquidating assets that may not have as much value as originally thought, or getting the ward needed services that cost money.

"My typical case is someone living at home, with dementia, or they get in a car wreck and end up in a hospital, then a nursing home, then I get called. They have a car and a house that's not worth anything."

Rather than turn that person over to the state office the minute the estate dips below $25,000, Myrick said, it's easier for him to liquidate the person's assets, spend down what they have so that they qualify for Medicaid, then transfer the case to the state office after he's gotten their benefits established.

Sometimes, if a person can't pay, Brown will keep the case anyway.

"Theoretically, when they can't pay, you have the state office take over. Most of the guardians I know are doing it because they are willing to help people out. They are not going to drop the person," Brown said.

Bill Scheidemantel, managing attorney for the Champaign office of the state guardian, said his staff appreciates that extra effort by Myrick and Brown.

"Vermilion and Champaign counties are busier counties in this part of the state than a lot of the other counties. We work a lot with Matt and John because of the population numbers," he said. "We've had a good working relationship."

Brown and Myrick said being police officers in their full-time jobs has helped them in their roles as guardians.

"You've got to find assets, talk to people, interview them, decipher what you're being told and determine if it's completely the truth. I think it (being a police officer) helps me in everything," Myrick said.

Equally as helpful to him was his service as a Vermilion County Board member from 1999 to 2006.

"That gave me familiarity with county government. I'm working a lot with the circuit clerk and the county clerk getting birth and death records. Knowing people who were familiar with me and me with them helps me ease through the process," Myrick said.

Brown said his police skills do help, but knowing what social services are available is the bigger challenge.

"I'm amazed at how many resources are out there that police officers don't know about. Occasionally, (as police) we try to get help for a homeless person. Especially at the UI, dealing with students and faculty, resources are so internalized. With a little experience, you know where to send them for help," he said.

Like Myrick, Brown has also been an elected official for several years. He was appointed a Savoy village trustee in 2005 and has been elected to the seat twice since.

Both men say the guardian job demands more time than they thought it would, sometimes to the detriment of their families. Each is married with two children.

"If I have to leave town, it concerns me," Brown said. "Something as simple as taking a vacation will be difficult. Last year, we went to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons for 10 days and some of that time I was out of phone contact. Now, taking vacations is not as simple. Someone may be having a medical issue or be in the hospital."

Still, the men confess they like to be busy and have a passion for service.

Indeed, they can be called on for all kinds of tasks.

"I have a lady that I moved out of her house, sold the house, moved her to the nursing home, then to assisted living, then to skilled living, then to the dementia unit. They call and tell me she needs pajamas. There I was at Carson's in Danville, a middle-aged guy in the women's pajama section," he said, adding he sought advice from a woman there on the best style for an elderly woman.

"I like to think of myself as a good Christian man," Myrick said. "Sometimes things happen for a reason and you don't know exactly why until years later. I should do the best I can for these folks while I'm charged with taking care of them."

There's also the priceless benefit of gaining perspective.

"When you're dealing with folks who have dementia that they either don't know what's going on or are acting in a way that wasn't how they were, it makes you sit back and say, 'I have it pretty good. There, but for the grace of God, go I.'

"If it was me, how would I want somebody to take care of me?" he said.

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