Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
It’s bad enough that Donna Burk will have to forgo a vacation so she can fill in as caregiver for her 96-year-old mother.
It’s even worse that Burk, a 65-year-old widow, will have to postpone retirement. She already lives paycheck to paycheck at her job working 12-hour shifts and now she’ll have to shoulder new expenses for Mom.
What makes it especially hard is that Burk says she has to hide the fact that her mother’s financial lifeline – a $32,000 trust with Desert State Life Management of New Mexico – has disappeared.
“There’s no way you can tell her,” Burk said in a telephone interview from their home in another state. “It would absolutely destroy her. This is only $32,000, but that $32,000 was going to keep her until the end of her life.”
Burk’s mother is a former Rio Rancho real estate broker who is among the 70 or so clients whose trust assets were supposed to be safe with the nonprofit trust company based in Albuquerque. But state and federal authorities say a recent financial examination of the company showed more than $4 million in client funds were diverted to personal and business accounts of the CEO of Desert State, Paul A. Donisthorpe.
State financial regulators, who have not been optimistic about recovering the money, have moved to put Desert State into receivership and the FBI went to federal court June 15 in an attempt to seize property owned by Donisthorpe and his wife, criminal defense lawyer Liane Kerr.
Burk contacted the Journal last week to speak up “because there are a lot of people (who have been harmed) who can’t speak for themselves. It’s sickening. How on earth in this country can we allow something like this?”
Burk said her mother grew up during the Depression and oversaw nine different checking accounts in her own real estate business. But she still panics about money.
“She pulls out her wallet almost every day and checks what she’s got. She says, ‘I need to sit down and get straight with you. I owe you money.’ My parents never wanted to take from anybody. They always wanted to give.”
Burk said her mother was the beneficiary of a trust set up after her husband died in 2008. When the balance dipped below $100,000, the trust was moved in 2012 to Desert State at the recommendation of another New Mexico trust company. Desert State handled smaller accounts, they were told, and charged lower fees to maintain and invest the assets.
In February, Burk’s mother moved in with her because she needed more care than her independent living home could provide.
Mom’s Social Security doesn’t cover the cost of medications and other expenses, so small draws on the trust helped pay for those costs along with a part-time caregiver who helps out while Burk is at work. Burk said she will now likely have to cut back the 71-year-old caregiver’s hours. She is saving up her paid vacation days from work, so she can fill in.
“Who ever would have known?” Burk said. “My main goal of the trust was to always stretch it out so we’ll have it. She’s going to be 97, and she’s going to make it to 100. She’s determined; she wants to. She’s unbelievable. She’s the Eveready battery.”
Burk’s mother, a New York native, didn’t retire until she was 75. She noticed that Desert State had stopped sending statements about her trust account last year.
Burk said that when she called Desert State to ask about the statements, she was told Desert State was no longer furnishing them.
“I said to them, ‘that doesn’t feel good; why is that?’ They said they had gone to different software and it was too expensive (to send statements).” She asked them to prepare a statement – what would be her last – which in January showed just under $32,000 in the account.
Burk said she has since spoken with “compassionate” state officials about the trust loss, and she urges “all of the lawyers, judges and attorneys general to please take this to heart as if it were their own.”
She looks ahead at what could be a long wait as the state tries to recoup client funds, if possible.
“I don’t want to get this for my mom when she’s gone. I want it now, to take care of her. When you think of it, it does not just affect my mother’s $32,000. Now it affects me having to make up that $32,000. It’s a double whammy.”
Burk said she is trusting in God. Still, late at night when she can’t sleep, she watches television to escape her financial worries.
“My first thought is that my mom, and these other people, may have to go into nursing homes. But my mom will not go to a nursing home. She will not go on Medicaid, because to her, that’s welfare. If she has to go to a nursing home, she’ll die. I’m not going to do that to my mom.”
“I’m trying to maintain, but every time I look at my mom, I feel so guilty. She tells me at night, ‘I know I’m a burden,’ and I tell her, ‘You’re not a burden. You’re a blessing.’ ”