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Tue, March 26

Public Fiduciary protects county's most vulnerable

Editor's note: The Board of Supervisors will receive a report from one non-elected department director during each regular meeting in 2007. The Daily Courier will report on each department before its scheduled meeting with the supervisors. Today's report is about the Yavapai County Public Fiduciary.

PRESCOTT - Yavapai County Public Fiduciary Shari Tomlinson and her staff serve the county's most vulnerable adults.

Acting as either a guardian or a conservator, Tomlinson protects the assets of the elderly, the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill when they can no longer do it themselves.

Tomlinson said the Arizona Legislature created the Office of the Public Fiduciary in 1974 and each county has a public fiduciary. The Superior Court appoints a public fiduciary to act as a guardian, conservator or administrator for a person when no one else can take on the responsibility.

When serving as a guardian, the public fiduciary ensures that an incapacitated person receives the basic needs, including personal, medical, psychiatric and housing.

"A person is incapacitated when he or she is no longer able to make decisions about the care they receive," she said.

Tomlinson said the person loses his or her right to vote, to decide where to live, to decide on medical treatment and driving privileges.

"We tend to be very restrictive on which guardianship cases to file. Although guardianship can be a great help, it reduces the person to child status," she said.

The public fiduciary serves as a conservator when a person needs protection of their assets. Tomlinson said her office manages the person's money and can sign contracts and conduct business.

People who have a public fiduciary as conservator "can still make decisions about where they live and medical treatment. Typically, the court appoints our office to serve as both guardian and conservator. But, sometimes there are cases involving financial exploitation," Tomlinson said.

Adult Protective Services and mental health clinics often refer people to the public fiduciary's office.

Tomlinson said her office investigates, and if appropriate, petitions the court. She said her staff investigates all other less restrictive options before petitioning the court.

The court petition must include a statement from a doctor that the person is unable to make decisions and is unlikely to recover, she said.

The court assigns the person an attorney and they can oppose the petition. A court investigator also reports to the court.

She said if the court decides to appoint a public fiduciary, it issues a letter allowing her to act on behalf of the person.

Tomlinson said she must report annually to the court and a judge reviews the appointment. If her office handles a person's money, she must file an annual report detailing all expenditures.

Tomlinson said the Arizona Supreme Court certifies public and private fiduciaries. A person seeking certification must have at least one year's experience with a certified fiduciary before he or she can sit for the test.

Future fiduciaries must pass an FBI background check and a credit check. If the person passes, the Arizona Fiduciary Board votes to certify him or her.

Tomlinson said Arizona is "ahead of other states in requiring certification. Arizona is actually a leader in the fiduciary field."

Tomlinson's office also handles indigent burials in Yavapai County.

Tomlinson said when her office learns about a possible indigent burial, the staff first checks for any money that might be available. If money exists, her office will seek a statement of administration from the court to pay fees and burial costs.

Tomlinson said, according to the law, any next of kin is financially responsible for the cost of burial. Tomlinson said her staff conducts an extensive search for any relatives. If they find none, the county pays the cost of burial.

"By law, we can collect the assets of an estate up to the amount the county spent for burial."

Tomlinson has five employees, two guardian administrators, a legal secretary, an accounting person and a benefit assets coordinator overseeing 80 guardian/conservator cases and five probate cases.

"We really make a difference. We can make things happen. We represent the victim and serve as an advocate for change. In reality, a public fiduciary is the defacto client. We are the person we are protecting," Tomlinson said.

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