By Terri LaPoint, Real News Spark
February 16, 2021
Joann Bashinsky was well-known for her selfless generosity and philanthropy. She was heiress to the sizable Golden Flake potato chips fortune. She had fame, fortune, friends, and a good heart. Yet, none of that was enough to protect her from becoming still another victim of elder abuse via the manipulation of guardianship and conservatorship laws. Sadly, she spent her final year and a half on earth fighting a fierce battle for the simplest thing — control over her own life.
All it took was for a couple of disgruntled former employees to file a petition with a probate judge (on the same day that they were fired, no less) declaring her to be mentally unfit, and Mrs. Bashinsky’s life was forever changed. With no due process, and without a judge ever hearing a shred of evidence in her defense, complete strangers were appointed to manage her money and given effective control of her life.
Horror stories like hers happen every single day, right here in America. People are thrown into a system that dehumanizes them, stripping them of basic freedoms and human rights, all in the name of “protecting” them. More than 1.5 million adults in the United States are under guardianships and conservatorships, with more than $250 billion dollars a year in assets at stake.
Certainly, some of these cases involve incapacitated elderly adults in need of protection –truly at-risk individuals who have no one to care for them or make decisions for them when they are unable. However, an increasing number of people are falling victim to predatory webs of lawyers, social workers, guardians and conservators — and to corruption in the courtrooms. Much of it is enabled by doctors who are quick to label someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, even when other doctors disagree with their diagnosis.
It is hard to imagine that lawmakers who wrote laws to protect vulnerable children and elderly adults could have anticipated that those laws would one day become the very tools by which people are taken advantage of, exploited, and even abused. Yet that is where we are today. Through the systems designed to protect them, senior citizens and children alike have become commodities, viewed as dollar signs rather than valued as the precious people they are.
It happened to the philanthropist Joann Bashinsky, and her story is a stark warning for others.
At the age of 88, “Mrs. B” or “Mama B,” as she was affectionately known by family and friends, joined the ranks of a growing club that she never signed up for — Victims of Guardianship Abuse.
Before the day that a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) showed up at her home, Bashinsky had no idea that someone’s freedom could so easily be stripped from them. In that respect, she was just like the many hundreds of people I have spoken with who learned about the almost omnipotent power of civil courts to forever change their lives only after encountering their overreach personally. Like most of the unsuspecting public, she did not realize that what happened to her could happen to just about anyone.
According to Yellowhammer News, the beloved Alabama philanthropist set out “to raise awareness about what is happening to far too many people as they grow older.” She wanted to make sure what happened to her never happens to anyone ever again.
Every person deserves dignity, respect, and freedom, and anyone who threatens those American values should be held accountable. . . . The public needs to know the dangers that I, and all older citizens can be subjected too, all too easily, by people who do not have our best interests at heart.Joann Bashinsky
“Emergency” Petition Filed by Fired Employees
On October 1, 2019, Bashinsky fired two longtime employees, John McKleroy and Patty Townsend, after they refused to comply with repeated requests to transfer some of her investment money from one company to another.
According to court documents, later that same day the two disgruntled employees filed petitions with the Probate Court of Jefferson County to place Bashinsky under the care of a guardian and conservator “who can make decisions for Ms. Bashinsky and give consent for her care and treatment and manage finances.” They filed both an emergency and a permanent petition with identical allegations.
The petitioners alleged that she could not care for her basic needs and submitted a letter (not a sworn affidavit) from a doctor declaring that she had dementia.
They reportedly accused her of being unwise with her money because she gave large sums to her grandson, her one and only living blood relative. According to Mrs. Bashinsky, the funds were loans, not gifts. One must ask, however, if that is even relevant. Should she not have been able to give or loan her own money to whomever she pleased?
On October 3, 2019, Jefferson County Probate Judge Alan King appointed a Guardian ad Litem and assigned a social worker to her case. All of this happened behind closed doors. Neither Bashinsky nor her staff were aware of any of this.
According to Melanie Myers, Mrs. B’s assistant, they only found out about the guardianship the next day when the GAL walked into the house through the garage, unannounced, and sat down in Mrs. Bashinsky’s office chair, handing them a card which read “Squire Gwin, Attorney at Law.” Mrs. Bashinsky was reportedly never served any papers or court order.
It was the “scariest situation,” said Myers, and it took them all by surprise.
Bashinsky and her staff immediately began researching guardianships and learned that what had just happened to Mrs. B was much more common than the public realizes.
Different Guardianship Tragedy, Same Judge
Less than two months before the GAL showed up in Bashinsky’s home, retired Alabama schoolteacher Marian Leonard died in a Birmingham area nursing home where she had been forced into unnecessary hospice care under a guardian by Judge Alan King — the very same judge who appointed a guardian and conservator to take over Mrs. Bashinsky’s affairs.
In both cases, Judge King set aside the Power of Attorney documents executed by Ms. Leonard and by Mrs. Bashinsky respectively. The people they legally appointed to represent and defend them were utterly disregarded by the court.
Real News Spark reported extensively on Marian Leonard’s story. See:
- Retired Alabama Schoolteacher Forced into Hospice Against Her Will
- Old Age Seen as Justification for Forcing Woman onto Hospice
- “They’ve Killed Her” – Retired Alabama Schoolteacher Dies under State Guardianship
It quickly became clear that this was not going to be a simple fight to clear up a misunderstanding. Instead of relaxing and enjoying her twilight years, Mrs. Bashinsky was plunged into the fight of her life.
Dementia or Convenient Diagnosis?
Real News Spark asked Melanie Myers if she had seen signs of mental decline in Mrs. Bashinsky. Myers asserted that Mrs. B was very logical and knew how to take care of herself. In fact, there were times the much younger assistant would forget a name, and Mrs. Bashinsky would laugh and remind her of the name. She told Melanie:
Well, I have an 89-year-old brain, but I think it works pretty well!
The petitioners’ allegations to the contrary, she reportedly remained quite capable, and she continued to dress well. She enjoyed reading as well as playing Scrabble and bridge with her friends.
Bashinsky went through extensive testing and consultations with her personal doctor, a geriatrician, and a neurologist –all of whom confirmed that she did not have dementia. According to Yellowhammer News, “[s]he additionally underwent psychological testing from renowned University of Alabama psychologist Dr. Rebecca S. Allen, who reportedly concluded that Bashinsky did not suffer from dementia.”
These testimonies were never heard by the probate court. At the hearing for the “emergency” petition on October 17, 2019, Judge King disqualified Bashinsky’s attorneys because the former employee petitioners argued that the attorneys had represented both Bashinsky and her grandson in previous matters. The court did not permit her to retain new counsel, thus none of Bashinsky’s evidence of her mental competency was allowed to be presented to the court.
Bashinsky was denied due process, and the court appointed both a guardian and a conservator to manage her affairs.
All too Common Scenario
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common practice when dealing with either guardianship issues or Child Protective Services. I have investigated hundreds of cases where a family court or a probate court takes the word of one doctor over several doctors, as many as a dozen, who disagree with a diagnosis or conclusion by the doctor upon whose word someone’s freedom is taken away or a family is ripped apart.
There are often cases where social workers or guardians prefer to work with specific health providers who “find” the way they want them to. Alabama attorney Lisa Chasteen once testified to former Governor Bentley’s DHR Task Force that an attorney for the state complained in a court hearing that a particular provider did not “find the way we want them to,” and thus rejected the services of that provider.
Any exonerating evidence is often either ignored or not allowed to be heard by the court. It is so common that in 2017 Arizona state lawmaker Kelly Townsend wrote an amendment to SB1003 which sought to prohibit DCS workers from “knowingly influencing the outcome of a matter before a juvenile court or DCS” by:
- Lying about a matter
- Withholding material information;
- Fabricating evidence; or
- Failing to disclose known exculpatory evidence
Such has been the experience of a significant number of families whose stories I have covered over the years, both of children taken by Child Protective Services and of adults taken under court-appointed guardianships.
What about the Children?
“Mel, how are we ever going to pay for the kids to go to school?” This was the first thing Bashinsky said after learning that a conservator would be seizing control of her finances, Melanie Myers told Real News Spark. With tears in her eyes, Melanie said that Mrs. B wasn’t concerned about herself — she was worried about the children and young people she might no longer be able to help through her philanthropic work.
In addition to being a huge supporter of the children of the Big Oak Ranch, one of her greatest joys in life was helping send young people to college who would not otherwise be able to afford it. Her parents had not been able to pay for her college education. According to Al.com, when she was able to go to college, she “made a vow that if I ever got any money, I would send any kid to school that wanted to go.” She held true to her word. She and her late husband, Sloan Y. Bashinsky, established the Bashinsky Foundation to provide college scholarships for young people. She has “personally contributed more than $17 million in scholarships, school supplies, and academic accessibility over the years.”
Conservatorship Means Strangers Controls the Money
After the conservator was appointed, Bashinsky no longer had control over the way her money was spent. Mrs. B was a stickler for paying her bills on time, Myers explained. She was very conservative and responsible when it came to her finances. Once the conservator was involved, things did not flow smoothly. The whole ordeal became very costly. Bills that were normally paid as soon as they came in were no longer paid promptly, causing much stress for Bashinsky.
The conservator did not make the same kinds of financial decisions that Bashinsky would have made. There was one significant bill which the conservator reportedly refused to pay, even though services had already been rendered. Her grandson ultimately had to pay the bill for her. He was reportedly not reimbursed.
The purported purpose of a conservator is to protect a ward’s money, but many times a senior citizen’s estate is whittled away once their lives and fortunes are taken from them. Lonnie Brennan, editor of the Boston Broadside, calls the process, “Isolate, Medicate, Liquidate.” He covered a series of guardianship abuse cases in the Boston area where court-appointed guardians and conservators destroyed the lives of several elderly Bostonians. In the case of Marvin Siegal, a well-to-do attorney, agents of a probate court whittled his estate of over $6 million down to less than $2 million in just 6 years.
Supreme Court Decision Addresses Emergency Petition, Not Permanent One
Bashinsky and her grandson had the resources to fight back, and fight back they did. They took the case to the Alabama Supreme Court, arguing that her due process rights were violated because the probate court disqualified her attorneys and did not allow her evidence to be heard.
The Supreme Court agreed that her rights were “egregiously violated,” and the emergency petition was dismissed on July 3, 2020. Newspapers reported the good news that she was “back in control of her money.”
However, the guardianship troubles were not over. There were two petitions filed simultaneously — the emergency petition and the permanent petition. Both listed the same allegations, but the lower court had only ruled on the emergency petition. That was the decision the Alabama Supreme Court overturned on July 3. The permanent petition had not yet come to trial. There was no ruling. Therefore, the Supreme Court had no ruling to set aside.
Mrs. Bashinsky had only regained partial freedom. With the permanent petition still looming over her head, she had additional court battles to fight. She was very concerned that they would end up isolating her from her loved ones. There were still endless meetings with lawyers, and she continued to lack the same control over her life and finances that she had before October of 2019.
Never Ending Battles Take Their Toll
“Mrs. B was one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” Myers told Real News Spark. Her faith in God kept her going during many long days surrounded by attorneys fighting simply for the right to do the things she worked hard for all of her life. Through it all, she would remind those around her that “God is in control,” and “God always has the final say.” Her hope was that her story would make a difference for others.
Even so, during the last month or so of her life, Myers said she could see that Mrs. B was mentally and physically tired. She confided in her assistant that the fight was really beating her down. She was under a great deal of stress during her final weeks.
In a twist of irony, the petitioners who started all this by declaring that Bashinsky was incompetent to make financial or other decisions were now reportedly demanding that she make huge financial decisions about her assets. Citing concerns that the Biden administration might eat up the estate in taxes, they wanted her to liquidate the family trust by December 31, 2020. During the week before and after Christmas, there were many long, stressful meetings demanding Mrs. Bashinsky’s presence.
Joann Bashinsky suffered a heart attack on Saturday, January 2, 2021, and died in the hospital the next day.
Though one might think the predators pursuing her estate might give her grandson and loved ones space to grieve the loss of their beloved “Mama B,” the petitioners stooped to a new low. Yellowhammer News reported that, during her memorial service on Friday, January 8, “she was slapped with new hostile motions in court from the petitioners. Mourners were reportedly stunned when some of them simultaneously received phone alerts that notice had been served of the motions.”
The court battles are not over. There is a new judge, and the fate of the estate has not yet been determined. The greed for control over Joann Bashinsky’s fortune which made the last season of her life very difficult has not ended with her death. Those who loved her in life are forced to continue fighting for her wishes. She told multiple sources that she wanted her legacy to be that she made people aware of elder abuse and that she stopped it.
Prayer and Action Sparks
I remember when I first heard about Mrs. Bashinsky’s story, I sensed that this would be the story that God would use to lead to the end of guardianship abuse. I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to tell her that before she died. I pray that this, indeed, will be her legacy, and that her story helps bring an end to predatory guardianship practices. I pray that God’s heart for justice and restoration will be released in our land.
Now, it is up to us, to you, dear reader, to pray, to share her story, and to act. Call your legislators. Support the work of those who fight for families against abuse through guardianships and corrupt courts.
What happened to Joann Bashinsky, a beloved philanthropist of substantial means, can and does happen to people all over this country, rich and poor. Instead of being able to enjoy their twilight years, their lives are being torn apart with endless legal and court wranglings by predators who do not value them as people. Laws, systems, and courts designed to protect our children, families, and elderly are being manipulated to deprive people of their basic human rights. It is time to say, “no more.”
As Martin Luther King, Jr., said,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
To learn more about guardianship abuse, see:
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