Ryan Peters was just 7 years old in 1991 when his father, Michael, suffered a traumatic brain injury. Michael, the agent and owner of several McDonald’s franchises in Mississippi, was a passenger in a car that left the road and hit a tree. A branch came through the window and broke Michael’s neck, destroying his frontal lobe and leaving him both paralyzed and in a coma. He partially recovered with treatment and rehabilitation, but lived in a non verbal and dependent state for the next 29 years, until his death in June 2020.
Ryan, Michael’s only child and sole heir, was raised by other family members. But Michael, a single, disabled adult, became a ward of the state. Michael’s mother Joy, Ryan’s grandmother, was named Michael’s guardian and conservator. In the former role, she was responsible for his daily personal care. In the latter role, Joy was responsible for the protection and management of Michael’s property and assets.
Although the probate court case establishing Michael’s conservatorship was opened in Mississippi, it was transferred to Baldwin County when Joy and Michael moved to Daphne in 1997. There, it remained under Joy’s control until 2015, when Ryan was old enough, capable and willing to take over. Ryan became his father’s guardian in 2015 and two years later, he was awarded the conservatorship.
As a part of the transition, Joy was required to submit a petition for final settlement of the account to the court. In it, she swore “she has used no part of [Michael’s] estate for her own personal use and benefit,” and noted there was about $19,000 in Michael’s checking account, around $100,000 in two certificates of deposit in Michael’s name, and a life insurance policy worth $72,359. Joy died in 2019.
Well before he took control of the conservatorship, Ryan said he was suspicious that his uncle — Michael’s brother, Johnny Peters — was interfering with Joy’s administration of the accounts. Johnny was an insurance agent and Joy trusted her other son with financial advice and decisions, Ryan said.
Ryan performed a forensic audit and discovered that when the conservatorship was in Mississippi, Johnny petitioned the court to act as co-conservator. Ryan intervened in the administration of Joy’s estate after her death, and later discovered on the same day Johnny was named co-conservator of Michael’s estate, he changed Michael’s insurance policy to reflect himself as the new beneficiary.
Then, after the conservatorship moved to Baldwin County, Ryan said he discovered the circuit court allowed Joy to invest $100,000 on his father’s behalf, investments Ryan claims were never accounted for. More recently, he subpoenaed bank records that showed more than $125,000 was transferred from Michael’s account to an account jointly owned by Joy and Johnny. Next, not long after Ryan was given permission to move his father from Daphne to Ryan’s home in Georgia, Joy and Michael’s house in Daphne burned down, and Johnny was awarded the proceeds of the insurance policy. Ryan claims there were also thousands of dollars of legal fees paid from Michael’s account through the years.
But once Ryan began to ask questions, Johnny pushed back. After Ryan filed a routine annual accounting in 2020, Johnny filed an emergency petition to remove Ryan as guardian, claiming Ryan spent some $120,000 in “non-approved funds” from Michael’s account after he became conservator.
Within a week and allegedly without a hearing, Probate Judge Harry D’Olive suspended Ryan’s letters of conservatorship and appointed a temporary, third-party guardian ad-litem and conservator.
“Beginning in 2020, I got hit with a slew of legal action, with Johnny saying I spent assets I hadn’t — I had perfect accounting,” Ryan told Lagniappe. Those expenses included consolidating a mortgage to make improvements on his own home to accommodate his disabled father and later, purchasing his father his own house where he could receive 24-hour care.
“My father was in hospice at the time, and they went through this entire charade where they suspended me as conservator, appointed [a new] conservator, submitted motions to liquidate my parent’s life insurance policy, tried to cancel my bond … they submitted motions for me to liquidate real property.”
D’Olive had ordered the parties into mediation, but it never occurred before Michael’s death last year. Then Ryan filed suit in circuit court, alleging “a high level of prejudice” in the probate court. There, he subpoenaed more than a half dozen attorneys and other individuals involved with the case and filed more than 100 pages of evidence to accompany a motion to reinstate his letters of conservatorship.
After a hearing in June 2021, Presiding Circuit Court Judge Clark Stankoski determined the “probate order related to the removal of [Ryan Peters] as Conservator was done contrary to the Rules of Civil Procedure, without proper notice, and is thereby void as operation of law.” But he also ruled that since Michael had died, the letters of conservatorship cannot be reissued to Ryan.
But just two months later, Stankoski “modified” and reversed his order, claiming “after all documents were filed in this matter … the probate order was done properly and was a valid removal.” He ordered Ryan to pay the fees of the third party conservator and guardian ad litem and dismissed the case, denying Ryan any other relief.
Ryan is appealing the case to the Alabama Supreme Court, but in the meantime, he hired a certified fraud examiner to review his father’s account. The investigator wouldn’t speak about the case immediately, citing an attempt to open a criminal case.
Joy and Johnny’s attorney, Erin Fleming, cited the pending appeal and also deferred comment. But in a motion to dismiss the circuit court case, she argued Ryan’s recourse was in probate court two years ago, where he failed to appeal then-Judge Tim Russell’s decree on Joy’s final settlement.
“Whatever alleged or concocted issues or complaints Ryan has regarding Joy’s handling of Michael’s conservatorship, or Johnny’s interference through Joy, his opportunity to litigate those grievances lapsed 42 days from Nov. 29, 2018,” Fleming wrote, adding Ryan’s complaint is also based on an “incorrect perception that Joy and Johnny committed some fraud or theft of Michael’s conservatorship assets, years ago.”
But Ryan continues to call foul on the whole ordeal.
“I am being denied due process … I have been begging to show cause,” he said. “The probate and circuit courts have multiple responsibilities to make sure a ward of the state is not abused and this is an epic failure of the system since 1997.”
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