This article is part three in a series. For the full series, go here.
Some readers may find aspects of this article distressing.
Joe* and Sarah* were put in the hands of the Queensland public guardian and public trustee (PTQ) against the wishes of their daughter, Georgia*, and granddaughter, Alice*, who have raised questions about the government’s involvement in Joe’s and Sarah’s care and are disputing changes made to Joe’s will in the weeks before he died.
Who can define mental capacity?
A doctor declared Joe no longer had mental capacity the day before he signed his second will.
How this new will was signed is unclear. A licensed private investigator hired by Georgia, who asked to stay anonymous so as not to jeopardise other cases she is working on, tells Crikey she couldn’t find documentation that changes to the will were advertised, the public trustee and family members informed, or the changes filed in the Supreme Court.
One judge asked the PTQ to provide documents showing the family was told about it applying to take over Joe’s financials, although Crikey understands this was later overturned by a different judge. The investigator also found that the social worker on Joe’s case had confidentiality agreements in place so that other cases she had worked on were anonymised.
Alice doesn’t believe her grandfather had been sound of mind for months. She said he had accused her of stealing money and was often confused, calling the police regularly, singing throughout the night and withdrawing money erratically.
As the will was contested in court, the doctor attested Joe had some cognitive capacity on March 22, 2017, but could not determine if he was able to sign his final will. The court case is ongoing.
The hospital’s CEO said an investigation would be launched into Joe’s care and the social worker’s conduct, but Crikey understands it paused the investigation after the ombudsman looked into the issue, clearing the social worker of wrongdoing.
Fee upon fee
Joe’s new enduring power of attorney (EPOA) was enforced on March 23, 2017. Almost immediately money started being transferred from Joe’s and Sarah’s accounts and the public trustee started looking into selling the couple’s home.
“He was still alive and they were already taking his money,” Alice said. Most of her grandparents’ $130,000 savings were spent by the public trustee, she said. Fees were charged for managing their property and wills, including $6300 for reviewing tax matters and solicitors’ fees, nearly $1200 in undefined “special fees” and hundreds of dollars in property management fees. $349 was charged for a smoke alarm test, and monthly “realty management’’ fees were debited from the estate.
It took two years for the public trustee to provide financial statements to Georgia which showed the organisation had initially overvalued her parents’ home by 10 times its worth (though corrected it without charging higher fees). Lawyers previously representing the family declined to speak to Crikey for this story.
These fees, and the lack of transparency around them, have been criticised by the state’s previous public advocate Mary Burgess in a damning report.
Unlike other states, PTQ is self-funded — meaning it relies on its clients’ assets to stay afloat and charges some of the highest fees in the country.
Family ties get messy
In early March, Sarah was also placed under the care of PTQ with Joe’s support as Alice and Georgia were under investigation after allegations by the social worker. Sarah was taken to the hospital for her ongoing pneumonia and then to an aged care home. She didn’t get to see Joe in the months before he died.
More complications arose. Georgia took out a domestic violence order against her brother Charles* for threatening calls and then dropped the proceedings. Charles soon retaliated with his own domestic violence order.
Georgia took to Twitter, complaining about the social worker. She said her account was then hacked with a series of offensive posts published, which she pleaded guilty to in court. The court was told the social worker was investigated by the Office of Health ombudsman but was cleared of any wrongdoing. The social worker said she feared for her safety.
“With Nan, we’d juggle with the carer and the neighbour while working 24 hours a day, fighting legal battles and trying to visit Pop,” Alice said.
“I’m exhausted. [PTQ] has worn me down. If that was the intention after everything, they got it.”
After four months of the state being in control of Sarah, Alice and Georgia were granted guardianship. The legal ordeal cost the family several thousand dollars. Sarah was moved to an aged care home. Alice’s lawyers advised them not to take her home immediately after getting guardianship.
Georgia says the aged care home was substandard and her mother was left in soiled underwear. Sarah was later rushed to hospital with a burst bowel — which Georgia said staff hadn’t noticed — and died of sepsis.
Joe died from heart problems in April 2017. Sarah died in May 2018.
Georgia’s and Alice’s battles have not ended. Court claims against Sarah’s will, which Charles contested, were settled, but they are still fighting the state to revoke Joe’s wills written in hospital.
In response to Burgess’ report, the public trustee established an ethics and integrity unit which is investigating Joe’s treatment but has refused to look into the role of the social worker and says the family’s claims that Joe didn’t have the capacity to sign two new wills is out of its remit.
“We’ve been waiting all this time and we’ve fought so damn hard to have this committee not look into all these things … It’s so horrible,” Alice said.
Disability Council International, which is concerned social workers have a “modus operandi” to place people under the PTQ, has had its calls for a criminal investigation rejected by the Queensland attorney-general’s office who told it to contact the local police.
A spokesperson from the Queensland Office of the Public Guardian told Crikey appointing a public guardian is only done as a last resort and can only be done if the state tribunal makes a formal declaration of a person’s capacity and if there is no other appropriate person for appointment.
A PTQ spokesperson told Crikey there are no requirements for people to hold legal qualifications to administer or manage a deceased estate, though those drawing up wills or enduring power of attorneys undertake specific training.
“The Public Trustee takes our responsibility and obligations to provide vital services to Queenslanders very seriously,” the spokesperson said, adding it was addressing the majority of recommendations outlined in Burgess’ report. So far, eleven of the report’s 32 recommendations have been implemented with another 14 in progress.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Attorney-General told Crikey the office provided detailed information about the referral options available to the Disability Council International’s clients.
“We tried to do everything with the greatest love for my grandparents,” Alice said. “It’s hard to have to wash your grandparents and help them to the toilet, then to be chastised and questioned about our intentions… It’s just awful.”
Alice’s mental health has suffered and she and her mother have struggled financially.
“I couldn’t even pinpoint what the fight is worth at this point. Nan and Pop deserved better.”
*Names changed for privacy
To read more pieces in this series, go here.
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