Public Trustee leaves pensioner without money for food

public trustee leaves man with no money

A decision was made a year ago to try to protect Mark* from being financially exploited – but now, he pays a dollar to the state agency protecting him for every dollar he gets back.

Mark has a neurodevelopmental disorder and survives on an Age Pension. His sister Annie* has cared for him since their father died.

In recent years, Annie became increasingly worried about her brother’s ability to manage and protect his finances, which prompted her to seek help.

She applied to the State Administrative Tribunal for Mark’s assets to be taken under state care. It was a decision she now regrets.

A woman with a solemn expression looks into the mirror of a glass cabinet, her eyes are not visible.
Annie thought involving the Public Trustee would help protect her brother. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

“It feels like they’ve taken complete control of my brother’s life, and mine. I have never been so stressed,” Annie said.

“It feels like being incarcerated.”

Left without money for food

Mark was put under an interim administration with the WA Public Trustee, and he was blocked from accessing his bank accounts.

He couldn’t even afford to buy food, forcing Annie to pay out of her own pocket to help.

In a statement, the Public Trustee said it could not comment on individual cases, but acknowledged that miscommunication with banks has led to other similar events.

A man and a woman sitting on benches perpendicular to each other in a park.
Annie is applying to remove the Public Trustee as Mark’s administrator. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

“The Public Trustee has been alerted to instances where the bank has frozen accounts because the bank did not understand the administration order and the Public Trustee will instruct the bank to unfreeze the account.”

Annie said Mark was unable to access his bank account for almost three months.

Eventually, after an hour-long tribunal hearing over the phone, the Public Trustee was appointed Mark’s official administrator.

A dollar for you, a dollar for them

Mark was only given access to his money through a $200 weekly allowance authorised by the Public Trustee.

In his first four months of administration, he received $3500.

Over that same period, the Public Trustee charged at least $3664 in financial administration fees alone.

Totalling all the fees, Mark paid 40 per cent of his pension to the Public Trustee, including for “asset management” and establishing the administration.

Play Video. Duration: 58 seconds
Annie* says it feels as though the Public Trustee has taken over her and Mark’s lives

“They’re set up to help the most vulnerable, but they’re not. They’re just out for what they can get,” Mark’s sister Annie said.

“They are exploiting him.”

It’s illegal in every state and territory except the ACT to identify people like Mark who have their assets under state care.

The potential penalty in WA for publishing their identity is one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to $10,000.

It means we can’t show Mark and Annie’s faces, despite them wanting to share their story.

“It’s a secret, secretive organisation … it’s an absolute disgrace the way you’re treated,” Annie said.

The self-funding government body managing $1.5 billion

The Public Trustee is an independently operated government institution which, among other services, manages the assets of some of the community’s most vulnerable people.

Its clients include people with mental illness, cognitive impairments, and others deemed incapable of making their own decisions.

In 2008, legislation was changed with the aim of helping the Public Trustee achieve self-funding so the government would not have to subsidise its services.

The fees it raises each year from estates and trusts have grown from $8.8 million in 2008 to $23.7 million in 2022.

It has $37.6 million in cash and cash equivalents on hand as of its 2022 annual report, and manages $1.5 billion in assets.

‘He needed a new fridge … he can’t afford that now’

Downfalls of the self-funding model have been highlighted by the state government watchdog in a 2022 audit.

The WA Auditor-General Caroline Spencer found it created an “inherent incentive to maximise fees from clients regarded by the Public Trustee as having the capacity to pay, but who by community standards would not be considered wealthy”.

The higher fees help subsidise clients deemed with less means – often unknowingly – allowing the government to avoid digging into its own purse.

Mark has a meagre income from an Age Pension, and lives a frugal life. However, because he owns a property worth about $200,000, he’s charged higher fees.

A stack of papers messily arranged with words personal fin admin fee highlighted.
The Public Trustee’s transactions are undergoing a forensic audit by the Auditor-General. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

On top of that, because he’s in WA, the fees are significantly higher.

The WA Public Trustee’s financial administration fees are greater than in any other state for clients with more than $70,000 in assets, according to a 2020 Marsden Jacob Associates report tabled in parliament in October last year.

“He needed a new fridge … he can’t afford that now, but he did have the money. Twelve months ago he had the money,” Mark’s sister Annie said.

If Annie asks about any of Mark’s financial assets – like why he was left without access to an allowance after his bank accounts were blocked – she’s refused an answer, or given minimal information due to confidentiality laws.

A photo of a man standing behind a flyscreen door with the top half of the photo ripped off, hiding his face.
Mark has a relatively severe neurodevelopmental disorder. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

“[Mark] has discussed his allowances with our office and he is aware of how much he is getting and how frequently,” a Public Trustee case manager wrote in an email seen by the ABC.

Annie cares for her brother on a near-daily basis with routine tasks like preparing meals to assist with his neurodevelopmental disorder.

She isn’t willing to take the Public Trustee’s word that it’s serving her brother’s best interests.

“I am so fearful that he’s going to lose everything.”

Annie is in the process of seeking a review to remove the Public Trustee.

Issues exist nationwide: lawyer

Mark isn’t alone in his experience of being unable to access funds when he was first placed into the Public Trustee’s care.

In fact, it’s a relatively common experience for people under state administration, according to Older People’s Rights Service solicitor Rowena Petrenas.

A woman with a neutral expression wearing glasses, sitting on a couch in an office.
Rowena Petrenas works with clients experiencing elder abuse and who are at risk of abuse. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

“The Public Trustee has to allocate that case to a trust officer. The trust officer then has to take steps to gather information,” she said.

“In the meantime, my understanding is that there’s no funds anywhere.”

Ms Petrenas says it’s an issue that affects Public Trustee clients across the country.

“That’s not unique to the Western Australian Public Trustee, you know, that’s something that is across the board,” she said.

“It may be between two to four weeks before an officer from the Public Trustee actually makes contact with the person.”

State control

When the Public Trustee is authorised to become an administrator, it’s given complete control of a person’s assets, and also the responsibility of working in their benefit.

It denied responsibility for any instances where people under administration were left without any access to their own money.

“If the Public Trustee is appointed, it does not block access to a person’s bank account, as the bank account needs to stay open so the person can have access to money,” a statement from the Public Trustee read.

However, as Ms Petrenas pointed out, issues with the Public Trustee are widespread.

For example, the fees being charged to manage Mark’s finances aren’t a result of any extraordinary circumstances on behalf of the Public Trustee.

They fall in line with the gazetted Public Trustee schedule of fees, which means anyone in Mark’s situation would’ve been charged the same.

Scrutiny of the trustee’s finances and activities is underway, with the Department of Treasury conducting a review of its fees and self-funding model, and the auditor-general completing a separate detailed forensic audit.

*Editor’s note: Photos in this story have been digitally altered and names have been changed as it’s illegal to identify people under state administration or guardianship.

© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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Written by ABC News

7 Comments

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  1. That is the epitomy of a complete rip- off. Who owns a property worth less than $200K,? so that means that everyone who puts thier money into the trustees piggy bank, is going to pay the highrt fees, and to ask for $3664 in fees from this guy, and obviously others, it’s no wonder their assets are $1.5 billions . I hope the investigation hauls them over the hot coals. The wotrds Dracula and blood bank spring to mind.

    • I think it needs something more like a Royal Commission into their activities in every state of Australia. These rip offs have been going on for decades, and never investigated.

    • Are they owned or controlled by the government because the abuse that goes on sounds like a labor government that is trying to take total control over the people

  2. I think this is fairly typical of most Public trustees in all states of Australia. I have heard some horror stories regarding the South Australian Public Trustee. If you don’t want their involvement in either your estate or advance care as you get older, you must do at least three things to prevent it.
    1: Have a proper legal will made and witnessed.
    2: Have a properly documented Power of attorney drawn up and witnessed.
    3: Have the same done with a medical power of attorney.

    If anyone has others, please add them as well, because it may save someone a lot of heartache in the future.

  3. When my Father died we found out that money he was left from New Zealand he asked that it be sent back to the cousin’s partner but they must have come out when he was ill as it was put in their charity account and it didn’t look like his signature. We went to see him every week and didn’t know anything about it.
    My sisters and I took his clothes and kitchen appliances to the Brotherhood only to have one of their reps turn up and demand to know where they were.
    Every week after he died we tidied the garden and looked after the house for over a year while they decided to sell only to have charges from them for supposedly doing it.
    The agent was chosen by them and we thought it was marked a bit low . It didn’t sell at auction but next day to someone known to the agent for the low price.

  4. The public trustee is a bunch of thieves and the government should get rid of them. Are they government-controlled? herd so many people that they have been ruined by them the way they control people that have been put in their control is abuse and thuggery.

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