Strengthening Probate Court Accountability

March 13, 2017

To strengthen the professionalism and accountability of court-appointed conservators, the Probate Courts are proposing legislation that would introduce formal standards of practice for conservators and tighten protections against financial exploitation of conserved individuals.

SB 976, An Act Concerning Conservator Accountability, proposes two things: It requires the Probate Courts to adopt written practice standards that address key ethical principles, guidelines on fiduciary duties, rights of conserved individuals and best practices for handling various situations that arise in conservatorship; and it provides for random audits, conducted by an independent auditor, of the financial accountings conservators prepare and submit to the court.

“This proposal is not an expression of dissatisfaction with the thousands of individuals who serve as conservators in our state,” Probate Court Administrator Paul J. Knierim said. “Rather, the bill recognizes the huge responsibility we impose on conservators and the need to provide them with better support and guidance. It also confronts the unfortunate reality that seniors with dementia and persons with disabilities are highly vulnerable to financial exploitation.”

“This bill will implement critical financial security measures for our most vulnerable citizens and neighbors,” said Rep. William Tong (D-Stamford), the House chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “The risk of abuse is too high, and we must take steps to make sure that conservators, who occupy tremendous positions of trust and authority, are held to highest ethical and fiduciary standards when caring for the financial being of another person.”

Some 20,000 Connecticut adults are under conservatorship. The Probate Courts appoint conservators of the estate for individuals who are found to be incapable of managing their financial affairs due to traumatic brain injury, dementia, intellectual disability or mental illness. Currently, conservators must provide the court with periodic accounts detailing the financial activities executed on behalf of a conserved person. In most accounting proceedings, the judge relies on the conservator’s representations, much as the Internal Revenue Service relies on the figures a taxpayer reports on an income tax return. An audit of conservator accounts will add a layer of scrutiny to the process by reviewing the underlying records to verify the truth of the representations.

“Not all accounts will be examined, but the possibility of random audits will deter conservators from misconduct, promote the accuracy of conservator accounts and protect the integrity of a conserved person’s finances,” Judge Knierim said.

The Probate Courts would pay for the cost of the audits, limited to available funding. The bill seeks no new funding for the initiative.

“Any financial loss suffered by a conserved person and his or her family because of dishonesty on the part of a conservator is unacceptable,” Judge Knierim said. “With more than $350 million currently under the management of conservators, the bill’s modest investment in prevention will be well worth the expense.”

Adopting the legislation would place Connecticut at the forefront of a growing trend among states to strengthen court oversight of conservatorships, with support from AARP, the National Center for State Courts and the National Guardianship Association. The Probate Courts began collaborating last year with several agencies to provide better training for conservators. The agencies include the Coalition on Elder Justice in Connecticut, the Department on Aging, Connecticut Legal Rights Project and the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office.

For more, read this Courant news story.