Investigation: Guarding the Guardians

 

No one likes to think about end-of-life decisions. But if you've got family and a legal plan, no one can interfere, right?

In Texas, a guardianship can take away everything you've set up -- even remove your family from the picture.

Hard to believe? It is happening in Texas. Guardianships have been a hot topic in the legislature this session because there is so much controversy surrounding them.

Dr. Mike Reichert spent decades caring for his patients. Now, the once-successful physician is dependent on others after a massive stroke destroyed his memory. Even walking is difficult.

Dr. Reichert was moved to a Rockwall nursing home to be close to his daughter, Maegan Reichert Hotaling, who visits almost daily.

Denise Reichert was married to Dr. Reichert for 30 years. They divorced in 2013, but he kept her as his power of attorney.

Family and friends were taking care of Dr. Reichert until August, when a local mechanic filed what's called an application for guardianship, triggering a messy and expensive legal battle.

"I tried to say, 'No, this is our family,'" Hotaling said. "'How can you do this?' And they said, 'You have no say.'"

"If he had been an indigent and had no bank account, nobody would have wanted the estate," Denise Reichert said.

So just what's in Dr. Reichert's estate? An inventory submitted to the court shows Dr. Reichert owns vehicles, livestock and farm equipment. He's got cash in the bank and a $2.7 million ranch. It totals more than $3 million.

Records also show that Joe Thompson filed the guardianship application, claiming Denise Reichert as "prohibiting visitors" from seeing Dr. Reichert and not acting in his "best financial interest."

With no testimony, no hearing and no evidence, a Titus County Judge signed an order appointing a guardian ad litem to investigate and granted a temporary restraining order, which locked Denise Reichert out of the bank accounts.

"Not one single time since that day has any party alleged that Denise or Maegan or any of the family has misused any of Dr. Reichert's money," said attorney Don Ford, who represents Maegan Reichert Hotaling. "There has been no allegation of misuse of money, so why the court issued a restraining order is completely beyond me."

Ford says guardianships are complex and technical, and families should never be easily shut out. And while county judges have the authority to create guardianship, Ford emphasizes they are not lawyers.

"Remember, a guardianship at its core is a question of should we take away somebody's constitutional rights to make their own decisions," Ford said. "If we are going to rip away somebody's right to make their decisions, we need to have a judge who at least knows something about the law."

Ford says money was at the core of Thompson's filing. In court records, he says, "Thompson and his wife were significantly indebted to Reichert for more than $20,000 in past due medical expenses and Thompson claimed Reichert owed him $40,000 for work."

FOX 4 tracked down Thompson to get some answers.

"Can you explain to us why you intervened in all of this and in their family?" FOX 4 reporter Becky Oliver asked.

"I'd rather not," Thompson said.

"You don't have anything to say about it?" Oliver asked.

"No," Thompson said. "He's a good friend of mine."

"Did you think he was being taken advantage of by his own family?" said Oliver.

"I just don't want to talk about it," Thompson said. "You need to cut that [camera] off."

After Thompson's application was filed, the judge appointed a permanent guardian of the estate, accountant Michael Taylor out of Greenville, who for the next few months started running up bills and submitted them to the court.

Ford claims that Taylor didn't have the authority to work as a guardian.

Michael Taylor did not return FOX 4's calls.

"They are totally pilfering his whole estate, just taking it apart one piece at a time," Dr. Garry Taylor said.

Garry Taylor was Dr. Reichert's longtime business partner.

"You knew this family for a long time?" Oliver asked.

"Yes," Garry Taylor said.

"You knew Mike for a long time," Oliver asked.

"Forever," Garry Taylor said.

"Did she ever give you a reason to be concerned she was abusing him in any way?" Oliver asked.

"No, she's never abused him in any way that I can tell and she's only wanted the best for him," Garry Taylor said. "There was never any testimony, never any accusations, nothing in open court. It was all done in chambers."

"You were there?" Oliver asked.

"Yeah, I was there," Garry Taylor said.

Judge Brian Lee denies there have been any backroom meetings, but he will not discuss the case.

"I can't comment on any case that is pending before the court," Lee said.

"Would you want a guardian taking over your estate?" Oliver asked.

"Right now, of course not," Lee said.

"As you got older, if something happened to you, would you want your children or would you want a guardian taking over your estate?" Oliver asked.

"I think there are absolutely certain circumstances that if I were in a circumstance like that, absolutely I would want somebody handling a guardianship on my behalf," Lee said.

"You would?" Oliver asked. "Over your own children?"

"You didn't ask that," Lee said.

But Oliver did just ask that question.

"Do you feel you are qualified to make these kinds of decisions when you're not a lawyer?" Oliver asked.

"On those that are appropriate, I have the ability to transfer a case to a statutory probate judge," Lee said.

The case was transferred to a retired Dallas probate judge who basically threw the whole guardianship out. Judge Joe Loving wrote, "The Titus County judge lacked jurisdiction to appoint Michael Taylor as guardian."

But that comes too late for the Reichert family. They've spent almost $100,000 fighting this guardianship, and it's taken a heavy emotional toll on the entire family.

"We have outsiders on paper saying they're his friend," Denise Reichert said. "They have never been to the house and had a meal or never done anything, never even visited, and yet they want the bank account, and that's what it all boils down to; money and greed and corruption."

A short time after FOX 4 taped the visit with Dr. Reichert, he passed away at a Rockwall hospital, but the legal issues are far from over. A request has been filed for an autopsy.

The judge has not set a hearing date yet, so Dr. Reichert is still at the funeral home and cannot be cremated or buried until that issue is resolved.

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