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Nineteen months after a judge ruled that Michelle Cohen should be allowed to handle her own affairs, the mentally ill woman is living out of her van. She is still searching for an attorney willing to help her sue the banks that handled her trust fund, once worth half a million dollars.
Cohen suffers from schizo-affective disorder, described as an illness that affects emotion and behavior. Her situation exemplifies the tug of war that exists between letting people with mental illness live independent lives, but also trying to protect them. Problem Solver has followed her situation since she contacted The Dallas Morning News before her guardianship trial.
Cohen had difficult relationships with the trust managers at the banks. She believed that the money belonged to her and that she should be allowed to control the account. She bought a van, a home in Wisconsin and a motorcycle for a friend. She purchased DVDs and spent freely on extended-stay hotels and restaurant meals. She spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers to try to break the trust.
Under guardianship, a state judge would appoint someone to make decisions regarding the person’s property, medical care, living arrangements and potentially all personal and financial decisions. “It provides necessary decision-makers for people with diminished capacity and protects them from abuse. Yet it also removes fundamental rights and may increase opportunities for abuse of the very people we strive to protect,” Naomi Karp, senior strategic policy adviser of AARP, explained before Congress in September. American National never stated why it sought guardianship for Cohen, referring questions to attorney Carol Dabner of Underwood, Perkins & Ralston. Dabner has never commented outside of the courtroom and told The News this week that she had no information to share.
The remaining money in the trust fund was drained by attorney fees because lawyers on both sides of the case were legally able to bill the trust fund. “They spent everything I had in trying to get me found incompetent,” Cohen said.