Two unmarked graves are the final resting places for 223 souls in El Paso County who had neither money nor family to bury them.
Their cremains fell to the care of county Public Administrator Catherine Seal, a probate attorney appointed as the “fiduciary of last resort” to liquidate a decedent’s assets, pay his debts and ensure a proper burial when no heir is found or willing to do so.
“If I’m doing my job right, it should not be worth mentioning,” Seal said.
But the jobs of all 29 public administrators in Colorado came under the spotlight last year, when the Office of the State Auditor found that lax oversight caused a dearth of detailed records of the administrators’ caseloads, assets overseen, hours worked and fees charged to estates for their services.
Because the estates involve “incapacitated, vulnerable parties and their families,” or absent families, the risk for abuse was high without proper oversight, the auditor’s office found.
No abuse was uncovered, but five changes were implemented in varied degrees over the past year to prevent administrators’ “misuse of their authority.”
• Public administrators must submit a form explaining all fees and costs for services charged to an estate.
• The administrators are to submit annual reports outlining caseload, total assets overseen, total hours worked and fees charged.
• County courts are to collect and maintain those records and review the public administrator’s position annually.
• Public administrators must increase their fiduciary bonds from $25,000 to $100,000 and file them with the Secretary of State’s Office annually.
• County courts are to ensure that funds remaining in a decedent’s estate are transferred to the state and held in the appropriate account.
Seal said she already kept such records and submitted them to the court annually, but copies were not available. Lynette Cornelius, clerk of El Paso County courts, initially said she never got an annual report from Seal but later said she misspoke and would turn over records dating to 2014.
The records never were sent to The Gazette, and subsequent calls to Cornelius were not returned.
Seal shared snippets from her records but said she doesn’t track cases by types, separating decedents’ estates from conservatorships, so she could not say how many burials she’s arranged since she was appointed in 2004 by the 4th Judicial District.
Evergreen Cemetery’s registry lists 223 people buried in the public administrator’s plots, and the state’s Registrar of Vital Statistics says Seal has been named on 184 death certificates in the county since 2014. Other funeral home owners who have worked with Seal estimate they’ve buried another dozen individuals.
But because the role of public administrators is not widely known, Seal explained some of the policies.
Administrator paid by estates they
The city-owned Evergreen Cemetery donates two vaults used for cremains and deeply discounts burial service costs to a flat $500 in kindness to Seal, said cemetery supervisor Jody Sanchez-Skamarak.
“My understanding is she doesn’t get very much out of it,” Sanchez-Skamarak said.
Seal said most burials she handles are for indigents, on which she loses about $50 per case. “We also make money on cases,” Seal said.
She lost about $10,500 in unpaid services last year but received $84,737.42 for overseeing 92 cases, decedent estates and conservatorships for the living, her records show.
Seal said she charges $250 to $300 per hour to manage and close estates, depending on the size, and her employees bill $90 to $120 an hour, depending on their role and expertise.
In cases where decedents don’t have assets but received government assistance, the county pays Seal $500 per person up to its contracted amount, $20,000 this year and $10,000 in previous years. The county reports paying Seal $39,000 for burials since 2014, including $3,500 for seven burials through early October of this year.
“I just think it’s sad how many times people admit they’re related but won’t accept responsibility (of the deceased),” Seal said. “They don’t want to spend money on final arrangements, and there is no legal requirement to make them.”
Funeral homes help bury the unclaimed
Two funeral homes regularly help the public administrator despite the risk of not getting paid, Seal said. They are Cappadona Funeral Home and The Springs Funeral Services.
“Somebody’s got to do it, and apparently we’re the only ones that will work that close with the public administrator’s office to be able to help these people,” said Paula Cappadona, who owns Cappadona Funeral Home. “I just know whenever they call us, we don’t ever turn anyone away.”
Seal said she tries to pay funeral homes, but sometimes the money isn’t there. If the person was receiving public assistance, funeral homes can apply to recover their costs from the state.
Terri Flores-Brown, president of The Springs Funeral Services, said her family-owned business feels it’s a duty to take care of the dead. “We’re trying to do this as part of the community. We always try to get full price, but if it’s not there, it’s not there.”
Other funeral homes occasionally work with Seal but say they don’t expect to be paid.
“They’re not easy cases to do … you lose a lot of money,” said Brian Allen, general manager of Evergreen Funeral Home. “If there is money left in the estate, they pay you. But if not, you kind of eat it.”
Leftover money reverts to state
Any money left in a person’s estate after Seal, debts and burial services have been paid reverts, or “escheats,” to the state treasury’s Unclaimed Property Division, where it is held for up to 21 years. If no family claims it, the money then goes to the state schools fund.
Seal said she escheated $37,017.97 to the state last year.
Human remains carefully cataloged
Seal stores cremains for about two years to give relatives time to claim their loved ones before they are buried, usually at Evergreen Cemetery.
The cemetery does not mark the public administrator’s two grave sites, but it does track all of the people buried there on its website, coloradosprings.gov/evergreen-and-fairview-cemeteries. Sanchez-Skamarak said a name search will show if the person is there and in what plot.
Currently, 108 people who died through 2008 are buried in plot 111, which falls in the county’s “potter’s field” section, Sanchez-Skamarak said. Another 115 people rest in plot 229, which last was opened in July to bury 86 decedents from the past two years.