Gay Texan cut off from partner of 34 years who has Alzheimer’s after sister-in-law obtained guardianship

TORN APART  |  Lon Watts, right, and Jim Heath are shown together the last time they saw each other.

TORN APART | Lon Watts, right, and Jim Heath are shown together the last time they saw each other.

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

PITTSBURG, Texas — With his partner of 34 years in a nursing home, a court order preventing him from entering the facility and two weeks to get out of his house, Lon Watts sold his wedding ring to pay for gas to get to his mother’s place in Oklahoma.

Watts never expected to be in this position, because he always thought of himself as part of his partner Jim Heath’s family.

But after Heath was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, his sister stepped in and took guardianship from Watts, who is now unable to see or talk to Heath.

After the story of Heath and Watts recently made national news, Watts has renewed his fight to bring Heath home and launched a legal fund, but the fight could take years.

Power of attorney wasn’t enough

Watts met Heath at a predominantly gay church in Houston in 1979.

“He was my first love,” Watts said. “He was gorgeous.”

Heath was 10 years older than Watts, who was just 21 at the time.

From Houston, the couple moved to Dallas, then to Oklahoma. Watts said they were very close to Heath’s family — so close that in 2000 they decided to move back to Heath’s hometown, Pittsburg, a town of 4,500 people about 120 miles east of Dallas. Heath continued to work in insurance. Watts became a receiving manager for Walmart. And Heath’s sister, Carolyn Franks, helped them buy a home.

Watts said Franks’ best friend was president of the local bank. She arranged a loan and the couple made the $5,000 downpayment. They had the money, but not the credit to qualify for the mortgage.

Franks did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

In 2006, Heath began to show signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. The next year, Watts retired to take care of his partner full-time.

This wasn’t the first time he’d been the caregiver. When Franks’ mother-in-law became gravely ill, Heath and Watts took her in rather than put her in a nursing home.

“She died in my arms,” Watts said.

He called it an honor to have cared for her. That’s just something families do, he said.

Heath was in his late 50s when he started becoming forgetful. Watts said he noticed when he asked his partner to do something, it wouldn’t get done, and there was a blank stare.

Watts thought he had all the paperwork in place — wills naming each other beneficiaries, mutual powers-of-attorney.

As the Alzheimer’s progressed, Watts said Heath was comfortable in his surroundings and never wandered. But he kept bells on the doors just in case Heath decided to leave the house at night alone.

In 2011, Watts noticed large blisters on Heath’s foot. He noticed swelling elsewhere.

“He had love handles where he never had them before,” he said.

He called 911, but paramedics refused to take him to the hospital.

“I couldn’t get him to a doctor,” he said.

But when the blisters opened, he got him to the emergency room, tricking him to leave the house by telling him they were visiting a friend.

From there, Heath was transferred to Pittsburg Nursing Center.

That’s when things turned ugly.

He said a nurse was “badmouthing” Heath. Watts reported it. The nursing home called police and filed criminal trespassing charges against him. Even after that employee was fired a few weeks later,

Watts was barred from entering the nursing home.

Franks, who had not seen her brother in awhile, visited him in the nursing home, saw the blisters and accused Watts of abuse. She called adult protective services.

He said Franks hired an attorney from Mount Vernon, 25 miles from Pittsburg. Without mentioning her brother’s relationship or Watts’ power of attorney in court, she was declared her brother’s guardian.

“When she filed for guardianship, she didn’t acknowledge I existed,” he said.

Then she sent Watts an eviction notice from his house. He said they were 12 years into paying off the 15-year note when Heath was hospitalized.

Watts challenged the guardianship immediately, but the court date kept being postponed.

“She got the house, took everything, leaving him penniless, before it came up in court,” Watts said.

He lost the guardianship fight a year ago, was out of money and depressed, but has renewed his bid to care for Heath.
Watts has started a legal fund and hired Austin attorney Dax Garvin, hoping to be reunited with his partner. Garvin is out of the country and was unavailable for comment for this story.

Fighting to bring his partner home

Dallas attorney Rebecca Covell, who specializes in LGBT estate planning and probate law, said, “A court-appointed guardian supersedes powers of attorney.”

She said same-sex couples in Texas, with no protection under the law, should have a declaration of guardianship in addition to their other paperwork. That document would state that if one partner is incapacitated, the other would control all health and financial decisions.

“That’s how you stop a family from doing an end run-around,” Covell said.

She said Garvin would probably file an application to remove Franks as guardian, but waiting so long could be problematic.

This week, Watts tried to contact Heath by phone. He was told Franks posted a “no outside phone calls” sign on Heath’s door.

Watts called that inhumane and reported it to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

Elaine Renoire, president of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, said wresting away guardianship is difficult.

“Mediate it,” she said. “Settle it out of court.”

She said money is usually at the root of the battle for control. She called locking Watts out of his partner’s life “ill-intent.”

“Isolating him is not a good sign,” she said. “But keep the heat on or they won’t ever let him see his partner.”

She said the guardian has three jobs — to protect wards from hurting themselves or others, conserve their assets and property and protect the public from becoming public charges.

Instead, the assets are gone. Heath is a public ward. And interaction with people he’s known for years to slow the progression of Alzheimers has stopped. But she’s still not optimistic the court will revoke Franks’ guardianship.

Watts would like to care for Heath himself.

“He should be at home,” Watts said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 17, 2013,