Unwanted guardianship costs a firefighter freedom
How an unwanted guardianship cost a firefighter his freedom and his fortune
by Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman
Norman Baker is an American hero who has been detained against his will for more than three years.
His "crime": owning too much property.
His sentence: a court-appointed guardianship on the brink of costing him everything he spent his life building.
His rights in this case: virtually none, significantly less in many ways than an actual law-breaking criminal.
His future if this continues: long-term de facto imprisonment, followed by abject poverty, if he has anything left at all.
A retired firefighter who once helped save a child's life, Norman Baker is not suspected of terrorism. He has never been charged with any statutory infraction, and has never been in any kind of trouble with the law. But he has been stripped of his right to vote and access to his own assets, which appear to have been weel in excess of $1 million as little as three years ago.
Until he was placed in a nursing home against his will by the court-appointed attorney he is trying to reject, Norman Baker owned and managed two dozen rental properties, many of which he designed and built himself. He also owned a 33-acre farm, with four horses, an array of tractors and other heavy farm implements, a carefully preserved century-old barn, a restored farmhouse from which he drew steady rental income, and a 3,000-square-foot brick home, which he also designed and built.
All Norman Baker's properties were free of any liens or mortgages. Before he was confined against his will to a nursing home, Norman Baker also had some $250,000 in cash and liquid investments above and beyond his real estate holdings. He rented his properties and lived a quiet, private life.
Today, without writing a check or using a credit card or making a single bad investment, Norman Baker has less than $20,000 in cash. Most of his rental properties are vacant. Some have been flooded. In one, a broken pipe has resulted in a water bill in excess of $19,000. Nearly all his properties, which were once entirely rented, are now vacant. Some have been seriously vandalized. A rental property business, which yielded a steady cash flow, is now bleeding cash every month.
Baker's farm implements—including a tractor owned by his brother---were sold by his unwanted guardian without his permission. The guardian also sold the slate off the roof of Norman’s carefully preserved antique hay barn, which may now be ruined by rainwater. The roof of his farm house has also been damaged and left unmended.
The comfortable brick ranch home Norman built by hand is boarded up and rotting. Its plush carpeting has apparently been stripped out. Its interior fixtures are gone or rotting. The concrete backyard swimming pool whose construction Baker oversaw is cracked and in ruins. When we visited the property, Baker could only peer into the windows of his wrecked home. It is posted against "trespassers."
At one point in his involuntary guardianship, a medical examiner hired at Norman's expense found him competent and recommended that he no longer need a guardian. But the attorney running Baker's guardianship refused to surrender control of Norman’s assets. He then brought back the same medical examiner for yet another examination. This doctor then proclaimed he "changed his mind" and that Norman needed a guardian after all. Norman was then billed some $2,000 for both examinations.
Since then, a Harvard-trained medical examiner has repeatedly tested Baker, who just turned 80. This doctor, whose most recent examination has been videotaped, has consistently found Baker competent to manage his own affairs and to hire his own professional help.
More than a year ago, a physician for the nursing home where Norman has been confined recommended that he be given an immediate discharge to the community. Baker walks three miles a day inside the home, and does his own laundry. He is dependent on no medications.
Norman Baker's case is not an isolated one. Usually guardianships are necessary where someone has no assets or no family and there has been no estate plan appointing a fiduciary. However, throughout the United States, tens of thousands of elderly citizens with significant assets have been placed under court-appointed guardians.
Though regulations vary from state to state, the attorney-guardians are required to report periodically to the county probate court on the disposition of the assets. Commonly, the attorneys charge fees for "managing" the property of their wards.
The law requires a guardian to act in the ward’s best interests. But often that is a major issue between the guardian and his ward that must be balanced by the Probate Judge, who is expected to act as the "superior guardian".
By and large, legal guardians are expected to pay regular visits to their wards. According to Baker, his court-appointed attorney has visited him just twice in more than two years.
Norman Baker has continuously requested that he have input in to the property management of his estate. But he has been ignored. Decisions have been made about Norman’s bank account and his properties without his knowledge or input, and over his continued objections and complaints.
Baker's court-appointed guardian was recently more than six months late in providing the court with a report on the status of Norman’s assets. Such reports are required by the Fairfield County court every two years, although the better practice is an annual account. Baker's cash assets have been drained, and many of his properties have been brought to the brink of ruin. But it is unclear whether or not all his bills have been properly paid.
Acting on his own, Baker has managed to contract with independent counsel. Susan Wasserman and Lewis E. Williams of Columbus have asked, on his behalf, that Fairfield County Probate Court Judge Stephen Williams set Baker free of his guardianship. But Judge Williams has refused and Norman Baker remains confined to a nursing home against his will.
Baker's troubles began in January, 2005, when he suffered a urinary tract infection. Reports for elder abuse are confidential and it is unclear who made the recommendation that his affairs be turned over to a guardian.
Whatever the situation at that time, Baker has long since recovered. But he still remains under a guardianship established at a hearing in front of Judge Williams where Norman was not represented by legal counsel, and was not in the presence of a blood relative.
This fall, after numerous attempts to terminate the guardianship, Attorneys Wasserman and Williams moved in the Fairfield County court that Baker's guardianship be vacated.
Ohio law stipulates that someone being subjected to a guardianship has the right to have his closest relative from within the state be present at the determination hearing. Norman Baker’s daughter was not notified because she was out of state, and notification to her was therefore not required by law. But it was mandatory under the law that Norman Baker's brother Robert be noticed, as he lives in-state and is "next of kin."
Because guardianships are invasive proceedings, strict requirements are meant to safeguard situations in which a probate court has such unfettered power over a human being. Norman’s brother, Robert Baker, of Celina, Ohio, has since stated under oath that he would have attended the hearing had he known about it, and that he would have argued then---as he does now---that his brother did not want or need a legal guardian then, and does not want or need one now.
Robert Baker also charges that the attorney appointed by the court to be his brother's guardian sold his own personal antique tractor---inherited from his father---from his brother Norman's farm, and has never accounted for the proceeds.
Norman Baker's farm has also been stripped of many of its accouterments without a full accounting. Its buildings have been left to rot. The land itself may be worth a million dollars or more. Baker's guardian has stated that he has gotten numerous calls from developers wanting to buy it.
Judge Williams has repeatedly refused to vacate the guardianship. Nor has he set for hearing the objections filed by Baker to the late and incomplete accounting as to what precisely the Guardian has accomplished on his behalf.
By Ohio law, such an accounting was many months overdue until Norman Baker demanded that the account be filed. In December, 2007, at Norman Baker's behest, Attorneys Wasserman and Williams filed a motion with the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Thomas Moyer, asking that Judge Williams be removed from the case. Baker's chosen attorneys argued that Judge Williams's handling of the case "gives the appearance" that there is little hope of Norman Baker escaping his unwanted guardianship, and regaining his freedom with due process of law as guaranteed under the Ohio and U.S. constitutions.
Chief Justice Moyer has recently established a high-level commission charged with looking into the guardianship system in Ohio. Nationwide, hundreds of cases similar to Norman Baker's have been reported at places such as the www.stopguardianabuse.org web site. The Los Angeles Times ran a major expose several years ago which has resulted in reform in many states. Extreme as Baker's case may seem, numerous state and local court records are filled with cases of guardianship discord.
Moyers turned down the request that Judge Williams be removed from the case. An appeal on Judge Williams’s denial of the motion to vacate the guardianship has been filed in the Ohio Court of Appeals, Fifth Appellate District.
Thus far, Norman Baker has been in constant litigation for three years against the guardian appointed over him by the court. Norman’s guardianship was imposed in a hearing at which he was unpresented by counsel, and had no relative at his side, even though his brother lives in the state. He is no longer allowed to drive a car or vote. He has been deprived of the management of his properties and of his cash accounts, which by all indications have been seriously mismanaged. The home Norman built with his own hands has been largely ruined through neglect. He has been unable to obtain a full accounting of what has been done with his assets.
In essence, someone who has committed a murder or robbed a bank has more rights than have been granted Norman Baker.
Though the furthest thing imaginable from a terrorist, Norman Baker has no access to habeas corpus, or to a speedy trial.
Every night, Norman Baker goes to bed in his unwanted nursing home, praying for his freedom. If anything, his case stands as a bizarre warning against getting inconveniently ill, even briefly, while being in possession of enough assets to attract a legal guardian to "protect" you in your later years.
As a Franklin County firefighter, Norman Baker worked to save lives. Now he must fight to save his own. "I never dreamed such a thing could happen in this country," he told the Free Press. "I just want to go home."
Robert Fitrakis is an attorney, and publisher of the Columbus Free Press. Harvey Wasserman is author or co-author of a dozen books, and senior editor of The Free Press . He is the spouse of attorney Susan Wasserman. Originally published by http://freepress.org.