Jewell Tinnon, put in a conservatorship without her consent, lost her home. / File / The Tennessean
By Tom Wilemon, The Tennessean
The Tennessee Bar Association has approved a series of recommended changes in the state law governing conservatorships, including first-time procedures to place a person in a conservatorship on an emergency basis without notice.
The recommendations, approved during the weekend by the association's board of governors, will be forwarded to legislative leaders, said Allan F. Ramsaur, executive director of the association.
In addition to establishing the emergency placement process, the 16 recommended changes in the law clarify the role of court-appointed attorneys, known as "guardian ad litems," assigned to investigate the need for a conservatorship and report back to the court with a recommendation.
The recommendations follow a series of hearings by an association panel, including a Sept. 20 Nashville session at which several witnesses testified they were victims of conservatorships and had all of their assets stripped away.
The association's effort was initiated when the General Assembly considered a series of amendments that were, in turn, sparked by the case of Jewell Tinnon, a Nashville resident who lost her home, car and all her belongings in a contested conservatorship case.
Under a conservatorship, a person's right to control everything from personal finances to health care can be stripped away and given to a court-appointed conservator.
Under the proposed provisions, the court could appoint a conservator without notice to the ward if "the court finds upon sworn petition that the respondent will be substantially harmed before a hearing on the appointment can be held."
The proposal would require that the person being placed in the conservatorship be given notice within 48 hours and that a hearing be held within five days. The emergency appointment would be for a maximum of 60 days.
No specific statute
Ramsaur said there currently is not a specific statute governing how emergency cases are handled, and the panel found there was wide variation in courts across the state. Locally, two of the most controversial conservatorships, Tinnon's and that of musician Danny Tate, were granted on an emergency basis the same day they were filed.
Jackson attorney Pam Wright told board members in the weekend session that in addition to legislative changes, the panel concluded that more public education was needed about the process.
She said the legislative changes would bring state law into closer conformity with a model conservatorship law recommended by a national panel.
"The existing law does not have enough specificity," Wright said, adding that the changes would give more protections to those being placed in a conservatorship.
Among those changes, she said, was to make it easier for a person placed in a conservatorship to appeal and get separate legal representation.
Other changes proposed include a requirement that the order creating a conservatorship include the specific rights that are being taken away and also any rights that are being retained. Another change would require a conservator to file more frequent financial reports, including one at the end of the first six months of the conservatorship.
Last year, the General Assembly approved two changes in the conservatorship law. One requires that a proposed conservator disclose whether he or she has a criminal record. The other requires the proposed conservator to disclose his or her relationship with the person being conserved.
Tinnon, who now lives in public housing a few blocks from the house that was auctioned off to pay bills while she was in a conservatorship, said she was not aware of the recommendations but had one question.