‘They took away everything I had:’ Arizona man pushes for probate reform

There are two bills being considered right now that supporters say would help protect people from losing their rights and their assets.
Published: May. 4, 2023 at 10:22 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) An Arizona man is pushing for changes to the state’s probate laws, calling himself a survivor of a system that left him bankrupt.

Bill Chalmers was an executive at a big company and he retired several years ago. “That drove a divorce, a messy divorce,” he said. “As part of that, I started to have some sleeping issues and behavioral issues that I totally openly acknowledge.”

Chalmers says his attorney recommended a conservator to help get through the divorce proceedings. “I was like, ‘OK, if you guys can help me get money, I’ll actually acquiesce. It’s only temporary. We’ll get through this.’ Well, then all of a sudden, as soon as they got their hooks in me, the whole story changed,” he said. “They put me into a guardianship. They took me from my home. Put me in a hotel. Took away my phone. Took away my computers. They took away everything I had.”

Chalmers says he was never told he had the right to a jury trial to determine guardianship. “They literally break you down. They break your spirit. They take away your hope. They give you feeling of absolute humiliation and disgust,” he said. He believes the motive is money. “In 13 months, the professionals charged me over $400,000. It’s a ridiculous amount,” he said. “When my conservatorship ended, they left me with 222 cents in my bank account. They left me bankrupt and it’s not an exaggeration. That’s literal. I have gone through bankruptcy as a result of this.”

Now, a proposed law, SB1291, would amend probate procedures to ensure people are informed of their rights, including the right to a jury trial. It would also protect their ability to have contact with family and friends. Another bill, SB1038, would establish a probate advisory panel. “It’s time that we talk about it. It’s time that we change and improve the laws to protect our rights,” said Sherry Lund, a long-time proponent of probate reform.

Senator John Kavanaugh is the bills’ sponsor. “The bottom line here is we’re looking to make sure that the rights these people have are clearly transmitted to them,” Kavanaugh said at a hearing.

The proposed laws are facing opposition. The Healthy System Alliance of Arizona is on the record, opposed to SB1291. Yvette Banker, a probate attorney who represents vulnerable and incapacitated adults, is too. She testified against SB1292 and addressed the question of jury trials. “There are already protections in the statutes,” Banker told lawmakers. “They always have a right to a jury trial, but normally now hearings are set within eight weeks for an initial hearing and trials are usually set for two to three months. With a jury trial, it could be a year. It could be two years. What happens to that person’s assets? What happens to their health in the interim?

Still, Chalmers says something has to change. His story would have been different, he believes, if he had been in court for his own case. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. It could happen to your parents,” he said. “This is happening every day. It’s across the country. But for me, my little world, I’m focused on fixing Arizona.”

Wednesday night, SB1038 was sent to Governor Katie Hobbs’ desk, while SB1291 passed the House Committee of the Whole. The State Bar of Arizona has not taken a position on either bill, according to a spokesperson.