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March 28, 2024

A Tribute to Mary Joy Quinn

Erica Wood
The PDF for this issue which includes footnotes and endnotes can be found at here.

Mary Joy Quinn had a smile that could light up a room – and early on she lit up the probate and elder justice fields with her positive energy and insight.  The ABA Commission on Law and Aging was fortunate to have her as a member and liaison from the National College of Probate Judges for many years. I knew her through her long ABA Commission involvement, and she became a valued colleague and good friend.

Mary Joy’s life path was interdisciplinary and cutting edge. Born in rural North Dakota, she settled in San Francisco.  Her nursing degree led her to clinical nursing and into public health nursing. She directed a psychiatric day treatment program for older adults, and earned a master's degree in clinical psychology, with emphasis on gerontology. With that basis, she came to the San Francisco Probate Court in 1977.  In reflecting on her career (in a talk to legal services lawyers), she explained “I came to the courts from the community perspective, with knowledge about older people, and with a medical background. As I added knowledge about conservatorship law, I began to feel like a multidisciplinary team all by myself!

A new California law passed in 1976 was funded in 1977 to create the position of probate court investigator. The position was unique in the nation.  Investigators visited subjects of conservatorship (the California term for guardianship of adults) as the eyes and ears of the court, and informed the adult of their rights. The investigators also visited after the appointment of a conservator to check on the adult’s welfare, determine whether modifications were needed, and investigate credible allegations of abuse. This was the Cadillac model of court visitor, long since sought by other states. Mary Joy became one of the first probate court investigators, and later Director of Probate Services in the San Francisco Circuit Court.  She brought her interdisciplinary vantage point to both of these roles.

Mary Joy and her team at the Probate Court created practices to implement the new law, and made many innovations that were best practices for replication by other states -- especially when Judge Isabella Horton Grant was assigned to the Probate Court in 1986.  Mary Joy recalled: “That is when the department blossomed. We were able to hire sufficient professional staff including a probate attorney, examiners and investigators. We developed new procedures as we learned from our cases that had gone wrong. We began to require full bond for liquid assets. . . . We established self-help clinics for those who might want to be conservators. We created a mediation program and provided training to probate attorneys.”

Mary Joy and team also produced a conservator handbook, which encouraged other states to develop similar guides. They offered free classes for family conservators.  In 2005, they completed a landmark study on “Improving Access to San Francisco Superior Court and Family Court for Elders,” for the first time providing an empirical picture of court services for older adults. Additionally, Mary Joy and Judge Mary Wiss, who currently presides over the San Francisco Superior Court, created an education program on elder abuse for San Francisco judges.

Judge John Voorhees, a past president of the National College of Probate Judges, remarked: “Mary Joy was an innovator. With the support of her friend and mentor, Judge Isabella Horton Grant, Mary Joy was a pioneer in the oversight of guardians and conservators in the probate division of the San Francisco Superior Court and ultimately became the Director of the Probate Department for that court. Her work has been duplicated throughout the country and now serves as a virtual standard for many probate judges in their review of the performance of a guardian/conservator and the ultimate safety and security of the protected person and their assets.”

Indeed, Mary Joy’s influence was felt far beyond the San Francisco Probate Court. She wrote and spoke nationally and was a mentor to many. Because she regularly encountered cases of elder abuse in her work at the court, she and geriatric social worker Susan Tomita in 1986 authored a groundbreaking book, Elder Abuse and Neglect: Causes, Diagnosis, and Intervention Strategies, that became a classic and was later republished in a second edition.  California attorney and elder abuse expert Candace Heisler observed that Mary Joy was a trailblazer “in efforts to call attention to elder mistreatment, and was among the first to describe causes, diagnoses, and intervention strategies. Her work was always informed by her nursing background . . . and the need for objective and fair standards.”

While she saw many elder abuse scenarios, Mary Joy’s indignation was especially piqued by cases involving undue influence.  She got a grant from the Borchard Foundation Center on Law and Aging, and worked with others to identify the elements of undue influence in various settings. The project resulted in a new state definition of undue influence – a model for other states -- as well as a screening tool for adult protective services.  Once again, Mary Joy was at the cutting edge. Candace Heisler noted that: “Mary Joy Quinn’s work in undue influence is groundbreaking. She led a group that studied undue influence laws, models, and practices across the country. That work was critical in California’s enactment of a new law in 2014 that redefined undue influence, provided categories of information that the court must consider, and updated an old and vague law for use in Probate Court proceedings.”

Mary Joy went on to write a second book in 2005, Guardianships of Adults: Achieving Justice, Autonomy, and Safety. It was the first complete text on guardianship, and clarified for social services and other practitioners a seemingly bewildering judicial process that was often misunderstood.  Lisa Nerenberg, Director of the California Elder Justice Coalition, commented that “Mary Joy maneuvered gracefully between two worlds, demystifying the law for colleagues and acolytes in the aging services network and bringing a voice of compassion and common sense to the courts.”  As Mary Joy gave me the opportunity to edit the manuscript from a national perspective, I saw that her knowledge on all aspects of guardianship simply poured forth, illuminating the dark corners.

Another way in which Mary Joy elevated guardianship best practices was through her innovative establishment of a national award honoring Judge Grant. “The Isabella” is presented to an awardee each year by the National College of Probate Judges. The award shines a spotlight on improvements in guardianship and promotion of less restrictive options.  In 2024, the Isabella award went to Mary Joy herself, just before her death – an honor she found very gratifying.

All of these pathways combined toward Mary Joy’s active participation in the National College of Probate Judges – culminating in her election as NCPJ President, the first non-judge to assume this influential role.  She received the prestigious NCPJ Treat Award in 2014, recognizing excellence in the field of probate law; and was named as an NCPJ Probate Star in 2023.

The American Bar Association president appointed Mary Joy as a member of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging. At the end of her term, she continued her dedication to the ABA  Commission by serving as the NCPJ liaison, bringing to the table the viewpoints of probate judges and staff. In those pre-covid days, the Commission met in person, had lunch and dinner, and members formed strong bonds. Everyone delighted in Mary Joy’s fun side, her wit, her knowledge, and her upbeat attitude.  I remember she was thrilled one year when the Commission had a cake to celebrate her sixty-fifth birthday. I had the pleasure of many dinners with Mary Joy and with Commission staff attorney Lori Stiegel when Mary Joy came east for the Commission meetings – it became quite a tradition. During and after the pandemic, Mary Joy and I kept in touch by phone and zoom.  Her emails were always signed “Cheers!”

Mary Joy’s life was full. She met and married Frank Quinn in 1977. They shared a passion for civil rights, as well as dogs and travel. She spent many summers in France at the home of his niece. Mary Joy traveled extensively with her nieces and friends, visiting all seven continents and “drawing energy from her far-flung adventures across the globe” (Candace Heisler).  She acted in a Gilbert and Sullivan presentation. She wrote and published Haiku.

Mary Joy was graceful in facing death. She communicated with friends and family until the end. She was actively involved in planning an upcoming study of California conservatorship, encouraging the team’s initial efforts. In her early studies on psychology, Mary Joy had focused on the importance of life review – which she practiced, and which seemed to bring her satisfaction. In a video in her last weeks, she recounted her challenges and accomplishments, flashing her famous smile.

Mary Joy had a deep sense of justice, lots of energy, a winning sense of humor, and was seen as “a tireless advocate.” She left a huge mark on elder justice and guardianship. In a keynote speech, she told legal services lawyers for elders, “Those of us who work in the field of elder abuse [and guardianship] are employing the better angels of our human nature. Keep up the good work. Time and human history are on our side.”

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