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Woman trapped in guardianship for 3 years finally has her rights restored after KIYC investigation

Kane In Your Corner first investigated Elberta Cohen’s situation last year.

Walt Kane

Mar 24, 2023, 2:48 AM

Updated 452 days ago

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A woman featured in a series of Kane In Your Corner investigations after she was trapped in a guardianship against her will, has finally gotten her rights restored. But the ordeal lasted three years and cost her an estimated $200,000.
Last week, Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Joseph Quinn finally spoke the words Elberta Cohen was longing to hear.
“We’re going to terminate the guardianship,” the judge said.
The decision means Cohen, 80, can finally make her own decisions again. Cohen said the ruling made her feel “wonderful, elated, very happy.” But she also called her situation “more than unfortunate.”
Kane In Your Corner first investigated Cohen’s situation last year. Her whole life had been put in the hands of a stranger, a guardian appointed by the court. She was left unable to access her own money or make her own legal or medical decisions.
Cohen’s youngest son, Robert, filed the guardianship petition. In an interview with Kane In Your Corner last year, he claimed he was concerned because he felt his mother’s thoughts could be “scattered at times.” Cohen and her eldest son, Larry, say Robert is not even on speaking terms with either of them. They say he filed the petition simply to stop her from updating her will, potentially reducing or eliminating his inheritance.
The Cohen case raises questions about New Jersey’s guardianship system. There are no clear diagnostic standards for judges to determine if a person lacks the capacity to make decisions; the judge’s discretion is nearly absolute. Once in a guardianship, it can be next to impossible to get out. More than 40,000 people lived under guardianship between 2018 and 2022, according to the New Jersey Judiciary. Just 73 people have had rights restored.
“It isn’t that common,” says Cohen’s attorney, Lauren Marinaro. “I wish it was more common. It’s difficult to do. I wish it was less difficult to do. But we got it done.”
Cohen was placed under guardianship based on evaluations by three doctors. Two found her unable to manage her affairs. But their conclusions were based in part on suspect evidence. One doctor asked Cohen to draw a clock. He admits she accurately depicted the time, which was the purpose of the question. But he chose to treat it like an art project, marking her question wrong because, in his opinion, Cohen did not depict the hands of the clock emanating from the center of the circle.
“The guardianship system definitely has a tilt towards getting people into guardianships and it can be very, very difficult for those folks to get restored back to capacity,” says Michael Brower, legal director of Disability Rights New Jersey. Brower says he attributes that in part to judges feeling concerned they could be publicly blamed if a person they rule has capacity is later injured. By contrast, Brower says some judges feel confiscating a person’s rights is the safer choice, even if it leaves them miserable and unable to exercise any control over their own lives. A bill, which would require judges to impose the least restrictive guardianship possible, has been languishing in Trenton for several years.
Getting rights restored is also expensive. Cohen had to hire her own attorney and pay for new examinations by her own medical experts. All the while, she also had to pay the guardian and the guardian’s attorney. Cohen is still waiting for a full accounting of her funds, but Marinaro estimates her client is out about $200,000.
Cohen’s freedom comes with strings attached. The judge required her to sign a power of attorney, allowing a financial advisor and geriatric care manager to assist her in making decisions. Cohen says she’s OK with the compromise because, in the event of a disagreement, she can still make the final decision, which is what she really wanted.
Cohen believes she would not have gotten her freedom back without the help of Kane In Your Corner. “You were kind enough to come to my house,” Cohen says. “You interviewed me. And you’re here in the court now. And I hope this helps everybody, that no one else will have to go through what I’ve just been through."
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