The marvelous Betty Winstanley died recently, just shy of her 98th birthday in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She died in the captivity of a court-sanctioned guardianship that haunted her final years. Her life never should have ended this way.
Winstanley was an elegant, eloquent, remarkable woman. In an era when women were undereducated, Betty became a trained chemist. She was married for 72 years to her loving and supportive husband, and was the mother of his three children. After Dr. Robert Winstanley died in 2014, Betty wanted to leave their retirement home in Pennsylvania and find another place in Maryland closer to her two youngest children. The estranged oldest son protested and took the matter to the courtroom of Judge Jay Hoberg. Hoberg spent almost no time before declaring Betty to be “incapacitated.” He appointed strangers to take control of all of Betty’s life decisions. The legal battle, which lasted nearly four years, ate away at the $1.9 million nest egg the Winstanleys had worked so hard to amass. Betty hated every minute she was under court control.
Betty’s was the first guardianship story I ever wrote about, back in early 2016. I almost couldn’t believe that a judge could declare an American citizen “incapacitated” and a “ward of the court” without so much as having a meaningful conversation with the elder person. I soon learned it was a frequent occurrence.
In an instant, the elder loses their civil rights and all ability to make their own decisions. Suddenly, they have no say on how their money is spent, where they live, which doctors or friends they can see, and once the court decides the family is “dysfunctional,” fee-earning outsiders who make their living in this oftentimes questionable profession, take control. If family members question a guardian’s actions, the court appointee can ban them from seeing their loved ones simply because they “upset” the elder.