A Wethersfield man suffering from cerebral palsy entrusted his affairs to a probate court-appointed lawyer, whose job as “conservator” was to protect his interests and assets. But those assets dwindled by tens of thousands of dollars amid improprieties by the lawyer, who tried to “hide his transgressions by filing knowingly false accountings,” a probate judge said in a recent ruling.
John Fritz, 64, of Wethersfield, hasn’t been able to get his money back. And his family so far has been unable to get law enforcement officials to investigate.
Meanwhile, Michael Schless, the longtime conservator — who was replaced last December in that role by Fritz’s half-brother — has retired as a lawyer and moved to Florida. He said in a brief interview last week that he’d done nothing wrong. “I deny stealing any money,” he said.
What happened to Fritz is exactly the opposite of what is supposed to happen when a judge of the Connecticut Probate Court appoints a conservator to manage the affairs — and protect the assets of — someone incapable of doing it himself.
Fritz, who was born with cerebral palsy, asked Connecticut Probate Court 25 years ago to appoint a conservator to manage his finances including an inheritance from his recently deceased mother that ultimately put his assets at more than $100,000.
In voluntary conservatorships like Fritz’s, a person who feels he needs such help can ask the probate court to give a “conservator” the power to handle his affairs by managing his finances, paying his bills and making various other arrangements.
Now his money market and stock accounts have shrunk to about $20,000, even though his family says they should have remained stable because his living annual living expenses are balanced out by Social Security payments and income from his limited part-time employment.
The sad story is told in public documents on file at Newington Probate Court.
When Fritz asked the probate court for a conservator, it appointed Schless, an attorney in Newington. The arrangement continued over the decades as Fritz has lived in a Wethersfield Housing Authority apartment building for the disabled and elderly.
Schless, as conservator, submitted annual financial accounting statements to the probate court in Newington.
Schless retired as a lawyer in recent years and moved to Boynton Beach, Florida. But he kept his role as Fritz’s conservator (you don’t have to be a lawyer to be someone’s conservator). Then, last year, Fritz’s half-brother and sister-in-law, James and Sharon Imbert of Newington, were shocked to see how little money was left in his accounts.
They particularly did not like the fact that Schless’s financial accounting statements showed net annual losses from Fritz’s stock and money-market accounts — of $9,333 for 2010, $12,752 for 2011, and $6,181. The Imberts obtained statements from the financial institutions and found that there actually had been a net gain of $1,451 in 2010, a loss of only $456 in 2011, and a gain of $254 for 2012.
They found other problems — including thousands of dollars in payments out of Fritz’s account for expenses that were not his. Examples, they said, were $1,074 to American Express, $39 to XM Satellite Radio, and $4.35 to the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida.
In cases like this, the probate court approves financial accountings in three-year batches after a hearing. After Schless submitted his reports for 2010, 2011, and 2012, Imbert challenged the accountings and sought the return of $58,147 to the state of his living half-brother.
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Deceit, Improprieties By Probate ‘Conservator’ Deprive Disabled Man Of Inheritance, Court Finds