Sylvia*, 69, is one of eight children. Her voice is strong and clear when you speak to her, and she has a warm, deep laugh. But over the course of our conversations, Sylvia reveals she still has regular check-ups for non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, and a decade ago she overcame breast cancer.
Sylvia is a fighter. But her dispute with the NSW Trustees & Guardian is making her tired.
In October 2018, Sylvia’s older sister, Eva*, died. She was living in a nursing home at the time, and did not leave a will.
Sylvia and another of her sisters, Helen*, were the only remaining next of kin. Adding to the complexity of this situation is the fact that both Eva and Helen are intellectually disabled.
Helen is also living with dementia. She lives the same nursing home as Eva, after Family & Community Services visited her and found her public housing home had fallen into a state of disrepair.
Sylvia did her best to clean up Helen’s home, but Community Services were adamant she move. Sylvia felt Community Services took an uncaring approach to Helen’s situation, and the information they gave Sylvia was confusing and difficult to understand.
“I went down there and helped to clean it up, but it didn’t make any difference,” Sylvia told HelloCare.
“They couldn’t have cared if she was going to get evicted.”
Though it takes her two hours each way, Sylvia still visits Helen regularly, but she finds it upsetting seeing her sister so unwell.
When Eva died, Community Services arranged the funeral and Sylvia found she was prevented from taking any of Eva’s possessions home. She has still not been able to obtain any momentos of Eva or any of her personal papers.
The representative “must have got power of attorney,” Sylvia said. “I wasn’t happy because, to me, they should have a person in the family representing the person,” Sylvia told HelloCare.
Because Community Services did not hand over the relevant papers, the bank could not make Sylvia the beneficiary of Eva’s estate.
Sylvia was forced to present the bank with death certificates for her whole family, a herculean task considering there were six deceased siblings who had lived all over Australia.
Once Sylvia convinced the bank all her siblings were deceased, other than Helen, she was contacted by the NSW Trustee & Guardian on behalf of Helen.
Alleging they used highly aggressive language, the public trustee told Sylvia they were blocking her claim on Eva’s estate. “We’re putting you on notice,” they said. “Stop the estate. We’re considering making a claim for Helen.” The public trustee said Helen needed the money now she was in a nursing home.
The NSW Trustee said they wanted to see the death certificates of all the siblings. Slyvia said she felt they suspected she was hiding siblings who were still alive. The public trustee also indicated that Sylvia’s nieces and nephews might be entitled to some of the estate – which amounted to less than $30,000.
The public trustee did not show any sympathy to her for the loss of her sister, Slyvia alleges. They also began to contact Sylvia’s son.
Sylvia said the representative for NSW Trustees did not need to be so aggressive in their approach. They could simply have put in a claim on Eva’s estate through the bank on Helen’s behalf. They didn’t have to “hound” her – and her son – the way they did.
“I’ve been bullied and threatened… The bank was mortified when they saw it,” Sylvia said. “They said it seems like they don’t care.”
The purpose of the NSW Trustee & Guardian is to help care for “some of the state’s most vulnerable people”, according to their website. They provide “independent and impartial” estate management services, and support to those who are unable to look after their own finances.
The NSW Trustee manages more than $6 billion worth of client assets.
Though their stated purpose is to support “the rights, dignity and choices” of the people of NSW, it seems Sylvia was not extended that courtesy, and nor have others who have found themselves in similar circumstances.
Late last year, James Prentice sued the NSW Trustee, claiming they “deceived” him when they removed him as executor of his mother’s will without his knowledge. He claims they charged his mother fees that she would not have been able to understand.
Problems with Australia’s state-based public trustees have not been confined to NSW.
Last year the Victorian ombudsman found State Trustees had failed a number of its vulnerable clients.
The ombudsman, Deborah Glass, alleges they sent the possessions of a woman in her 70s with dementia and bipolar disorder to the tip, including family photographs and address books. Ms Glass also claims they removed $2,000 from an elderly man’s account to pay for someone else’s fines, and 48 different staff handled a single account in just 14 months.
In July last year, State Trustees was forced to terminate its chief executive, Craig Dent, for “serious misconduct” involving the alleged misuse of taxpayers’ funds.
Victoria’s State Trustees remains under investigation by the Ombudsman.
Queensland’s Public Trustee has also had its share of scandals. Peter Carne was suspended from duties in June last year following allegations of misbehaviour.
An investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age uncovered many cases where clients were dissatisfied with public guardian services.
Sylvia informed the NSW Trustee that Helen has $55,000 in a bank account, funds received from the sale of a family home years prior. But regardless, she said she was happy to share the inheritance from Eva with Helen.
The bank reassured Sylvia that only the next of kin are in line for any the heritance, so nieces and nephews did not need to be considered. The bank eventually wrote to the public trustee, asking them to hand the estate to Sylvia.
“That was the bank’s decision,” Sylvia explained.
Sylvia doesn’t care if she receives half the estate or all of it, she just wants the matter resolved. It’s now 15 months since Eva passed away.
“I rang the bank just before Christmas and said why don’t we just split it down the middle,” Sylvia explained to HelloCare.
“The bank said the public trustee is still making up its mind… so I am still waiting.”
“The public trustee has not helped me. They have bullied me, threatened me, threatened my son.”
“Are they waiting for me to die?” Sylvia said it felt that way.
A spokesperson for the NSW Trustee & Guardian told HelloCare that because Sylvia’s matter remains active, they are unable to comment.
However, they said, “if in liaising with NSW Trustee & Guardian, Sylvia experienced a negative interaction with our staff, we sincerely apologise.”
Sylvia is “fed up” with the wait. “I can’t deal with it anymore,” she said.
* Names have been changed.
Have you had a difficult experience with a public trustee or guardian? Email us at [email protected]