KIYC: Woman held in guardianship against her will says it cost her more than $250,000

For two years, Elberta Cohen was trapped in a guardianship, unable to decide how to spend her own money or make her own health care decisions.

Walt Kane

Jul 19, 2023, 1:45 PM

Updated 360 days ago


A woman who was placed in a guardianship against her will finally had her rights restored after a series of Kane In Your Corner investigations, but court documents show the ordeal has cost her over a quarter of a million dollars.
For two years, Elberta Cohen was not allowed to decide how to spend her own money or make her own health care decisions. As Kane In Your Corner reported in a series of investigations, that power was placed in the hands of a stranger, a guardian appointed by the court, after a judge found Cohen lacked the capacity to make decisions on her own. Cohen insisted she was never incapacitated. A judge restored her rights in March.
But that freedom came at a price. Kane In Your Corner obtained the final accounting filed with the courts by the guardian, attorney John Ross. In two years, he accrued guardianship expenses of over $258,000.
“He just did whatever he wanted,” Cohen says.
Some of the numbers are staggering. There was $37,476.34 for a money manager to pay Cohen’s bills. A geriatric care manager received $63,495.37 to coordinate Cohen’s health care. The health care itself cost under $8,500. There were also a whopping $99,001.42 in legal bills, and the guardian himself is billing for $33,136.50 in commissions. All of the spending was totally legal, done in the name of protecting a senior who could not be trusted to spend her own money wisely.
“There was no protection,” Cohen says. “They did the opposite.”
Attorney Lauren Marinaro, who represented Cohen in the fight to restore her rights, says if the guardianship hadn’t been terminated and spending had continued at the same pace, Cohen would have been out of liquid assets in about two more years. She’s asking the judge to reduce Ross’ guardianship commission, even though she admits he’s probably legally entitled to it. “I feel like I have no choice but to ask the court to just give this lady a break,” Marinaro says.
Ross, the former guardian, declined requests for an interview and Kane In Your Corner was unable to catch up to him at his law office. In an email, Ross says “I had no involvement whatsoever in having Elberta Cohen declared to be an incapacitated person, and I made no effort to oppose the restoration of her capacity.” He adds that he provided an accounting of first-year spending “to Mrs. Cohen and all interested parties approximately a year ago and I did not receive a single objection.”
Some advocates for guardianship reform say what happened to Cohen is sadly not unusual. “Basically, you're being held captive, while people are just charging your estate,” says Marcia Southwick, director of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse. “It's as if you become a cash cow.”
The New Jersey Judiciary is now looking into possible reforms to the state’s guardianship system. A working group has come up with a list of 13 recommendations, including adopting a bill of rights for people placed under guardianship, and clarifying procedures for people like Cohen, who want to get their rights restored.
Cohen says reform can’t come soon enough. “I just don't want, God forbid, anybody else to go through what I've been through, and what I'm still going through,” she says.

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