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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“[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.
“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.”
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.
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