Fighting for Mom
A family battle over guardianship and money gets ugly.
By Patrick Sullivan | Nov. 18, 2017
Jennifer Rodgers and her mom, Martha, used to be very close. They lived near one another in Suttons Bay, talked on the phone every day, and stopped by each other’s homes for meals.
Today, Rodgers is no longer allowed to see her mom without permission from Martha’s court-appointed guardian, Jill Case. For a while, after Case took over Martha’s life in March, Rodgers wasn’t allowed to contact her mom at all. Eventually, some supervised visits and phone calls were permitted. Finally, in recent months, Rodgers was given permission, at times, to take her mom out for lunch or drive her to her knitting group.
That all ended on the day Case learned that Rodgers had asked the Northern Express to look into the circumstances that led to the guardianship. On Nov. 8, the day the Express had contacted Case with a message seeking an interview, Rodgers was informed that she would no longer be allowed to take her mom out to lunch.
In a text, Case wrote: “Jennifer ... I have advised your mom that I have limited the visitation for you. This is based on the reporter doing a story on your mom. I am very disappointed with all of this. I can tell talking to your mom that she is upset.”
ENTER ADULT PROTECTIVE SERVICES
Rodgers vividly recalls the day her world turned upside down: March 14, the day the government stepped in and took control of her relationship with her 79-year-old mother.
“I just happened to call home on a Tuesday. And my mom is in tears. And she’s like, ‘There’s somebody in my house right now, and I don’t know who it is, and they want to take me in to see somebody,’” Rodgers said. “You know, I was trying to get the story. And I finally got Michelle Hagerman on the [line] and all hell broke loose. She goes, ‘I’m with Adult Protective Services, and you’re the perpetrator of financial exploitation and neglect. What are you doing in Florida?’”
When the Express contacted Hagerman to verify Rodgers’ version of events, she declined to comment and referred questions to her supervisor at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Lois Kiel, who didn’t return any calls.
Bob Wheaton, MDHHS spokesman, said he could not comment on details about a guardianship.
Case ultimately refused to comment but did say this first: “Martha would be sickened that you guys are doing this. … Why don’t you do a story on the lack of volunteers to be court conservators?” she said. “I am done talking. … No comment. I’m going to hang up.”
Rodgers, a surgical technician, was working a temporary gig in Florida last March and said she had planned to bring her mother to join her when Hagerman swooped in, determined that Rodgers had neglected and financially exploited her mom, and, in an emergency hearing on March 17, petitioned the probate court to appoint Case guardian.
At that hearing, Hagerman testified about that call from Rodgers.
“While I was there, Jennifer called,” Hagerman testified. “She was very worked up, and she was pretty agitated with me. She believes that because she is [Power of Attorney], that she can make all the decisions and that she can have people not involved or informed, which I do not feel is in the best interest of the client.”
During that March 14 phone call, Rodgers said she tried to find out what was happening and why. She would not learn about the hearing to appoint Case as her mother’s guardian until March 17, the day of the hearing.
“There was this whole thing of keeping me in the dark, because at this point they treated me like a criminal,” she recalled. “They wanted to keep me as far away from my mother as possible.”
Years earlier, Martha, had planned for an uncertain future. She has two children, a son and a daughter, and in 2007, she named her daughter, Rodgers, Power of Attorney (POA), giving her legal authority over her life and estate.
That POA was “activated” by her attorney before Rodgers left for Florida. Rodgers said she did that on the advice of her mother’s doctor because they were concerned about leaving Martha in Suttons Bay. The previous summer, Rodgers said, her mom had started having trouble speaking, and Rodgers had made an appointment with a specialist. Martha saw a doctor in October.
At that point, accounts differing over what Martha’s doctor recommended.
Rodgers said her mom’s doctor had never suggested that Martha needed 24-hour care and that the doctor had said Martha was OK to drive during the day, as long as she stayed around Suttons Bay. Martha vehemently wanted to remain independent, said Rodgers; that’s one of the reasons why she didn’t go with her daughter to Florida. Rodgers said she arrived in Naples in late February and was looking for an apartment for her mom so that Martha could continue to live on her own.
Rodgers said she thought she had adequately planned the trip to Florida, but on March 14, she found out otherwise.
“So this is where I am questioning Michelle Hagerman’s assessment skills, because she should have just taken a deep breath and said, ‘Do you have a POA?’” Rodgers said. “She didn’t want to hear anything about this. She thought she found a big fish, and she was going to punish me, and she was going to take over this woman’s life, and she was going to save my mother from all this. … and it worked.”
Rodgers maintains that Hagerman and Case made exaggerated claims in order to take control her mother. At times she said she felt as though other people were twisting reality to make it look like she was hurting her mother. She said she was frustrated that her mom needed permission to attend family picnics and was no longer allowed to visit her hair stylist when she wanted.
In court hearings, Hagerman and Case testified that Rodgers used profanity, was unreasonable, and upset her mom with her phone calls.
At the emergency hearing on March 17, Case was named guardian out of concern that Rodgers neglected and financially exploited her mother.
At the formal hearing to designate a permanent guardian on May 17, however, the neglect and financial exploitation allegations apparently dropped away, according to transcripts. Rodgers said those allegations didn’t hold up.
An attorney had been appointed to investigate the claims, and in his report, allowed that Rodgers might not have been as vigilant as she should have been, given her mom’s dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He also found that the financial exploitation allegations amounted to a financial gift that Rodgers said she received from her mother for a house down payment, which was actually a loan and needed to be repaid.
Leelanau County Probate Judge Larry Nelson upheld the guardianship and maintained Case as the guardian, saying that, given the acrimony between Rodgers and her brother, Simeon Rodgers, someone outside the family should serve as guardian.
“This is where everybody’s finding out that there’s this grey area of accountability with these people that have a huge ability to come in and take over somebody’s life,” Rodgers said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody says — it’s my mother’s wishes. These were established in 2005, not something I felt like doing in February. But Michelle didn’t want to hear about that. She wanted to get in front of that judge and say there was $60,000 missing from my mother’s account and ‘I am sure Jen stole it.’”
ABOUT THAT $60,000
In the beginning, the guardianship was justified out of concern that Rodgers stole money from her mother. Later on, the guardianship continued, it seems, out of concern over Rodgers’ anger and frustration regarding the guardianship.
A week or so before MDHHS was called, Martha and her son, Simeon, visited his mom’s bank, where Simeon Rodgers learned about $60,000 that his mom gave his sister to purchase a house in 2015, Rodgers said.
For Simeon and his son, Spencer Rodgers, this was a smoking gun: Jennifer Rodgers, they alleged, had taken advantage of her ailing mother and fleeced her of tens of thousands of dollars.
Rodgers said that money was a gift she received from her mother when Martha was of sound mind. Later, Rodgers said, as Martha's Alzheimer’s progressed and Martha was in the guardianship, her brother and Case convinced Martha that the gift was actually a loan. Rodgers said that amid all of the stress of the case she relented and agreed to pay back the $60,000, even though it was originally a gift.
She shared a text message from her mom's financial advisor in Virginia, John Shubert of Merrill Lynch, who said that he knew that Martha gave her the money and thought there was nothing strange about it.
"I remember when she did that, but it was her choice." Shubert wrote. "Parents choose to do that stuff all the time.”
Acrimony over finances in the Rodgers family goes back years.
Rodgers said she believes the origin of her current struggle goes back to the mid-aughts, after her brother had taken over her late father’s metal fabrication business in Dayton, Ohio. The business failed in 2007, and in the process, Simeon Rodgers took out a $650,000 loan against his mom’s house on Lake Leelanau, ultimately causing Martha to lose her beloved property.
Martha sued her son in Ohio, and her son counter-sued. Rogers said that when Martha later held a garage sale at her home in Leelanau County, Simeon called the police, claiming she was selling stolen property. Martha decided to disinherit her son, Rodgers said. Around the same time, Rodgers said she was named POA.
In the meantime, Rodgers said, she helped her mother buy a new house in Suttons Bay and worked with her mother’s financial advisor to shore up her finances. Over the years, Martha’s trust grew to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Martha had enough wealth that she could give her daughter a gift of $60,000 without risking financial instability, Rodgers said.
That wealth, however, caught her brother’s attention, Rodgers claims.
“There was a purpose here,” she said. “My brother saw how much her account accumulated, how it had been growing over the years.”
SPENCER COMES TO TOWN
In March 2017, Simeon’s son, Spencer Rodgers, set everything in motion. He arrived in Suttons Bay, stayed with his grandmother, and called protective services.
Spencer said he had flown to Dayton from his home in San Francisco, and he and his dad had driven from Dayton to Martha’s home in northern Michigan with the intention of driving his grandmother to Florida.
Spencer denied that he was part of a conspiracy to remove his aunt from his grandmother’s affairs so that he and his father could insinuate themselves back into Martha’s financial life. Simeon Rodgers did not return a message seeking comment.
“Ultimately, what it came down to is I called the police because my grandmother’s health was at risk,” Spencer said. “I called the police against my dad’s advice; they didn’t want me to call the police.”
Jennifer and Spencer disagree about a lot of things. For instance, Jennifer said she was surprised by Spencer’s visit in March because, in the past decade, he’s come to northern Michigan maybe twice. Spencer said he’s visited, on average, once a year.
Here is what Spencer said happened: He said he hadn’t seen Martha since his wedding in April 2016, and he said that he found her in rough shape when he arrived in Suttons Bay in March 2017.
“I started noticing things that were really, really off, and my grandma was extremely confused, and she was having a hard time talking,” Spencer said.
Spencer said his grandmother had trouble understanding what was going on around her and that when he tried to make her dinner, he found her pantry and refrigerator filled with spoiled food.
“I was really disturbed by this because, from what I had been told, my aunt had said basically there’s nothing wrong with Grandma,” Spencer said. “She had rotten carrots, and she was eating them.”
Jennifer said the allegations that her mom’s house was filled with spoiled food or that she ate spoiled food were ridiculous. There might have been some food there past its sell-by date, but lots of people have that in their pantry, she said.
One morning, Spencer said, he went to the doctor’s office with Martha in preparation for the Florida trip, and he was frustrated that his aunt wouldn’t give him permission to act as a patient advocate. Jennifer said she thought it made no sense to add Spencer as a patient advocate.
“He’s staying with her, and he starts going to her doctor’s office and saying, ‘I need to get involved with her medical.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, Spencer, with having so many irons in the fire, we really should keep it to one person. So I’ll handle it,’” she said. “And that kind of set him off.”
Spencer said he was frustrated that his aunt was blocking access to his grandmother’s health care.
“I told the lady at the desk, I said, ‘Look, would the doctor be concerned if my grandma was eating rotten food?’” Spencer recalled. “When I said that, the lady was like, ‘Listen you need to call Adult Protective Services, and you need to call the police.”
That’s what Spencer did, and soon, Hagerman was in Suttons Bay interviewing Martha.
HURRICANES AND TORNADOS
Spencer and Jennifer also dispute how long Martha has been showing signs of diminished mental capacity.
Spencer insists his aunt knew for two years that Martha had Alzheimer’s and dementia and that, in fact, Martha started “losing her faculties” a decade ago; Jennifer said that’s not true. She said the first sign of significant mental decline showed up in summer 2016, and she made an appointment to have baseline tests performed for Martha right away.
Spencer believes his aunt took advantage of his grandmother’s declining condition.
“She gave herself my grandma’s house,” he said. “She then mortgaged that house and gave herself money.”
Jennifer said Spencer doesn’t know what he’s talking about and notes that when Martha was of sound mind, she decided to leave her estate to her.
Jennifer said she believes Spencer was trying to enrich himself. She said that while Spencer was staying with Martha, he asked her to buy him a house in San Francisco.
“He was going through all her financials, and he was hoping there would be something there for him,” Jennifer said.
Spencer said he didn’t do that; rather, he suggested his grandmother should buy herself a house.
“I said, ‘Listen, Grandma, if you sell your house out here and buy a house in San Francisco, I would be your caretaker,” he said. “I didn’t ask my grandma to buy me a house.”
He added: “Personally, I don’t really give a shit about money.”
Spencer agreed that a decade earlier, his father and grandmother had a falling out over the family business, but he said it wasn’t as bad as his aunt made it out to be. Spencer said his dad might have run the business into the ground, but didn’t steal from his mother.
“He didn’t do anything illegal, because when they sued, they lost,” Spencer said. “He’s a bad businessman, but he’s not a crook.”
Given the history, Jennifer said she believes Hagerman and Case exercised poor judgment when they sided with Spencer and his father over her.
At the outset, Jennifer texted photos taken from Spencer’s Facebook page, showing him partying, to Hagerman and Case. That backfired: The caseworkers saw the photos as evidence that Jennifer wanted to defame her nephew.
Jennifer also points to something else she believes is evidence of her nephew’s questionable judgement: He is in his mid-30s, she said, and he claims that he’s starting a business to stop hurricanes and tornados.
Spencer, who noted that he is a member of Mensa, agreed that he is trying to start such a business.
Although he has no formal scientific training, he said he’s spent hours reading and researching and that he’s discovered a way to use renewable wind to slow down tornados and hurricanes.
“We have the ability to reduce them by a drastic amount,” Spencer said.
“IMMEDIATE INJURY, LOSS, OR DAMAGE”
Case and Jennifer Rodgers had a diffucult relationship from the start.
In court, Case said she didn’t think there was any reason for her to talk to the daughter who Martha had named POA. They communicated by text messages. In those first days, Rodgers said she attempted to be polite and diminutive with Case, despite her anger and frustration. That’s backed up by a record of text messages between Rodgers and Case that Rodgers shared with the Northern Express. In them, Rodgers takes pains to be polite, though in the string of messages, she does let her frustration show.
Case became frustrated with Rodgers. On March 22, she filled out paperwork to request a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against Rodgers, on behalf of Martha, that would prohibit Rodgers from contacting her mom.
In the paperwork, Case alleged that Rodgers was stalking her mom and posted personal contact information about Case on social media.
Case didn’t file the paperwork until May 11, and at that point requested an emergency hearing where the respondent does not have to be present because of the likelihood of “immediate injury, loss, or damage.”
In an attachment, Case cited the photos of Spencer partying that Rodgers had sent. She wrote that Rodgers had sent them “in an attempt to slander this family member.”
Case continued: “Spencer Rodgers came to visit his grandmother in an attempt to assist her (on a temporary) basis and has been appropriately acting in this manner. Jennifer Rodgers has represented herself as POA (having power of attorney) assuming she has all say and ‘custody’ of her mother via financial, medical, legal, and has instructed other parties (including medical) not to share, disclose or include anyone but herself.”
To back up her claim that Jennifer Rodgers posted personal contact information, Case included a screen shot of a Facebook post. However, the Facebook post was not from Rodgers. It was from another family member who Rodgers said was among the many who were frustrated that they could not reach Martha in those first days. The numbers posted were publicly available numbers for Case and Hagerman.
Rodgers said Case filed the PPO because Rodgers had sent her mom a Mother’s Day card, defying Case’s orders that Rodgers refrain from contacting her mother.
Rodgers challenged the PPO, and a hearing was held before Nelson in June.
Case argued that, although all of the reasons cited in the PPO application had to do with contact Rodgers made with her or Hagerman, she was filing the PPO because Rodgers’ behavior had been upsetting to her mother.
“I can’t keep having caregivers calling me after hours and Martha yelling at me, asking me why I don’t like Jennifer,” Case testified.
Nelson upheld the PPO but granted Rodgers daily 15-minute phone calls and two hour-long supervised visits per week.
After testimony about the instances when Rodgers become angry about her separation from her mom, Nelson told Rodgers: “You are a very emotional person. I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but just seeing you sit there at the various hearings and how you conduct yourself, I think you have a very difficult time controlling your emotions, Ms. Rodgers.”
Later, the PPO was terminated without explanation. Rodgers said it was because other family members started looking into what was going on.
“People knew that it wasn’t true. Someone at the home (where Martha lives) saw that Jen and her mom were actually interacting very well, and it was good for her mom,” said Lisa Leatherman, Rodgers’ partner. “Because we knew that they were lying about that, they had to drop the PPO.”
Jill Case is called a “volunteer” guardian because she volunteered to serve through the court, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get paid.
Case refused to answer questions about how much she gets paid or for how many people she serves as guardian.
According to Leelanau County records, Case is a guardian and conservator in just the one case, Martha’s. A guardian is appointed to oversee the health and well-being of the ward; a conservator takes control of their finances. In Grand Traverse County, she serves as the guardian for four people and conservator for three. In one other case earlier this year she petitioned to be named guardian and conservator for another elderly woman, but the woman contested it, and Grand Traverse County Probate Judge Melonie Stanton struck down the petition.
A “volunteer” guardian is a person who is outside the family and who may take on one or multiple cases, said Susan Richards, Leelanau County’s probate register.
“It would not bar her from charging or receiving compensation, but any compensation would be subject to the approval of the court and would need to be detailed in an attachment in the annual account,” Richards said.
That means Case is eligible to pay herself compensation through Martha’s estate, and she must account for that in a report she has to file a year after she was appointed.
Case is also an employee at the Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging.
After the Express contacted the COA, Case left a message at the Express demanding that a reporter not attempt to contact her employer because she said her guardianship work is separate from her work at the COA.
A follow-up call to COA Director Cynthia Kienlen asking whether Case is allowed to use her work with seniors to find guardianships was ignored.
There is no evidence that Case is taking advantage of Martha’s estate for financial gain.
However, lack of oversight of guardians across the country has led to rampant financial exploitation, said Rick Black, intake coordinator for Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianships.
Black, who’s been cited in The New York Times and the New Yorker, said Michigan is a hotbed of abusive guardianships.
“I am knee-deep in more than a dozen cases across Michigan,” said Black, who lives in North Carolina. “You’ve got a mess up there.”
Black was not familiar with Martha’s case, but he said guardianship cases should raise red flags. He said in most cases of abuse, the victim set up a living will or named a guardian through a POA, but those wishes quickly get set aside by judges.
“They’ve recognized they can easily pervert the court by everybody telling whatever lies they want to tell to discredit the family member and thus deny the estate documents and step in,” Black said.
Once the guardian and conservator is named, there is very little oversight, he said. They must file a financial baseline report within 60 days and then a financial report once a year. These reports, Black said, rarely see scrutiny, and the guardians are free pay themselves what they want from the estate.
“People are begging to stay in their homes, stay with their loved ones; they don’t want a guardian,” Black said. “They isolate the victim so their voice is never heard. The dysfunctional family ruse is the common refrain to deny the estate documents, so from the very onset there’s just no due process in these proceedings.”
FRIENDS FOR 60 YEARS
Some of Martha’s closest family members are disturbed about what’s happening.
Lynne Hackenberger has known Martha since she was a teenager. Martha married Hackenberger’s brother, and the families stayed close. Hackenberger and Martha’s husbands each started separate metal fabrication businesses in Dayton. The families bought adjacent property on North Lake Leelanau and spent summers together on a family compound.
“I’m very close to Marty,” Hackenberge said.
Hackenberger said she thought Jennifer Rodgers might have been in denial about the decline of her mother’s health, but she doesn’t believe Rodgers neglected Martha.
“It had been kind of evident to the family that she was starting with some dementia, and I think Jenny was so close to her, maybe she was somewhat in denial that it was quite as bad as it was,” Hackenberger said.
Hackenberger was aware of the plan to bring Martha to Florida last winter and believes that if that were to have happened, things would have worked out. Hackenberger was in Florida at the time, and she was looking forward to seeing Martha.
Hackenberger said she is suspicious of Simeon Rodgers’ motives in light of the business collapse a decade ago.
“Her son has done some really questionable … things with the finances, with her finances, but Marty seems at this point to not really be able to grasp what he did,” she said. “He left her so upside down financially, and Jenny really stood by her mother at that time and helped her figure that out.”
Whatever the grandson’s motive for calling protective services, there is no question that the move got Simeon Rodgers and his son back into Martha’s life, Hackenberger said.
Once the process started, Hackenberger said it seemed as though the guardian and the caregivers favored Simeon and Spencer over the other side of the family.
“It was awful. I’d call Mart, and they’d say she wasn’t available or not answer the phone,” she said. “They didn’t want any of this side of the family to be involved. We would have stuck up for Jen.”
BEST WISHES OVERRULED
The person Martha named as back-up guardian, Anne Vance, said Martha’s ordeal has been heartbreaking and disturbing.
Martha and Vance are second cousins, and they both grew up in Dayton.
“Our families, even down to the third cousins, we were all very, very close,” Vance said.
Several years ago, while Martha was still of sound mind, she chose Vance to be her back-up POA, the person to be appointed guardian if, for some reason, Jennifer Rodgers was not able. Vance had experience as a court-appointed guardian — she’d served in that role for her parents, but Nelson refused to name Vance guardian in May, saying he would not name a family member, given the acrimony.
“I think Martha probably chose me as a secondary because she saw the care and the consideration that I gave to my mom and dad,” Vance said.
It was claimed in a court hearing that Vance had been picked by Jennifer Rodgers in some supposed plot, but Vance said that was a ridiculous allegation. She said Martha called her herself and specifically selected her. Vance said she would not have had trouble balancing the needs of Martha’s son and daughter.
What’s so upsetting about what’s happened, Vance said, is that Martha’s wishes that she made when she was of sound mind were completely undermined.
“The most disturbing thing to me, for her, or for anybody, is they could have laid out in their right mind a plan for if their medical condition starts to decline, and her wishes — I can’t say they weren’t taken into consideration by outside forces, but they were just totally overruled,” Vance said. “What’s the purposes of someone doing that if it basically holds no water?”