September 17, 2020
LANSING – The controversial Macomb County guardianship case that Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel intervened in on behalf of the people of the State of Michigan, has settled. The private parties agreed that the financial aspects of the settlement are subject to a confidentiality agreement, while the injunctive aspects of the settlement, insisted on by the Attorney General, are public record.
Caring Hearts Michigan Inc. and owner Catherine Kirk agree that the guardianship company will immediately cease operations and legally dissolve by the end of the year. In addition, Kirk and Caring Hearts Michigan employees are permanently barred from operating any other guardianship or conservatorship entity.
The case caught Nessel’s attention in September 2019 after a 12-stop statewide Elder Abuse Listening Tour, where the most frequent complaint involved guardianships.
Caring Hearts Michigan was appointed by Macomb County Probate Judge Kathryn George as both guardian and conservator for Robert Lee Mitchell and Barbara Delbridge, despite a petition submitted by the daughter and stepdaughter of the couple.
Of significant concern to the Attorney General was the web of connections between Caring Hearts Michigan, a guardian agency owned by Kirk, and Executive Care, a 24-hour in-home care company, also owned by Kirk, as well as a law firm — Kirk, Huth, Lange and Badalamenti PLC — owned in part by Kirk’s husband.
“Our involvement in this case revealed what we feared: fiduciaries with a clear financial conflict of interest who billed a shocking amount of money in a relatively short period of time” said Nessel. “The law is very clear on this issue. The court shall not appoint as guardian an agency, public or private, that financially benefits from directly providing housing, medical, mental health or social services to the legally incapacitated individual. In fact, the Estates and Protected Individuals Code specifically prohibits certain financial self-dealing by the guardian with respect to the protected individual.”
Caring Hearts Michigan hired Executive Care to provide in-home care for Mitchell and Delbridge, and hired the law firm to provide legal advice. In about six months, the three entities billed nearly $400,000, almost 72 percent of that for Executive Care.
"It is incumbent on the courts to ensure that the state’s guardianship system is providing properly for the vulnerable and that the court-appointed guardians and conservators fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to those in their custody,” Nessel said. “To help, my team continues to look for similar instances of self-dealing and we will take swift action when it is discovered.”
Complaints about professional guardian or conservator entities who are engaging in similar self-dealing can be filed online with the Attorney General’s office.