Trust Betrayed: One Elder's Fight against Financial Abuse

Article excerpt

First of two articles

In July 2006, ReginaldJ. Rogers was accused in federal court of 13 counts of mail fraud for stealing more than $480,000 from five elderly clients of his law practice. In a scenario that was uncovered by the Bar Association of the District of Columbia and the FBI, he had convinced his aging victims to let him manage their finances. In the case of my aunt, Hattie Mae Goode, he was also in charge of her medical care by means of a healthcare power of attorney.

My Aunt Hattie was age 90 and failing physically when her sister, Agnes Gay, and I discovered that most of her funds had gone into Rogers' accounts through his authority as power of attorney. His scheme also included a trust that he set up for her estate. As successor trustee after her death, he would have been beyond the reach of any investigation that her surviving family, scattered around the United States, feasibly could have organized.

NOT UNIQUE

The Rogers case is, unfortunately, not unique, according to Lisa Nerenberg, author of Elder Abuse Prevention: Emerging Trends and Promising Strategies (Springer Publishing, 2008) and former director of the San Francisco Consortium for Elder Abuse Prevention. As my aunt's example illustrates, typical elements that may flag an elder's victimization are dependence on a person who not only encourages the victim to distance herself from family members and previous caregivers but also has authority over the victim's current finances and estate plans, as well as healthcare power of attorney.

As the greatest transfer of wealth between generations in the history of the United States unfolds, many elders are vulnerable to financial abuse, often from those closest to them. California attorney Stephen Camber, an expert in financial elder abuse, said he has seen many instances where legal instruments, such as the power of attorney and living trusts, have become the tools of manipulation, fraud and deceit. Family members, as well as caregivers, often take advantage of vulnerable elders through undue influence.

Trustworthiness is the main concern, according to Marshall Kapp, attorney and professor of law and healthcare at Southern Illinois University School of Law. For most people, Kapp said, durable power of attorney is a good strategy - if they have someone they can trust. However, this approach can backfire if elders are dealing with untrustworthy people.

Kapp advised, "The more people involved with support and oversight, the better." By authorizing one individual to hold power in both healthcare and financial matters with no one else in place to oversee the situation, my Aunt Hattie ended up at great risk.

FOSTERING DEPENDENCY

After Aunt Hattie's husband died in 1996, her attorney established himself as her dependable caregiver, managing her medical appointments, taking her to the doctor and employing a visiting nurse for her. He also bought her medicine and food - and even cleaned her kitchen. Rogers employed a process of increasing isolation and fostering dependency that Nerenberg's Elder Abuse Prevention analyzes in detail.

Rogers became my aunt's sole caretaker and isolated her from other family members who previously had helped her with errands and medical appointments. However, once her funds were depleted, he stopped taking her to the doctor, stating that he "didn't like that doctor"; he became furious when a niece took Aunt Hattie to the emergency room for treatment. He had told neighbors that "she's failing fast" and that he'd "better call the family" to alert them.

"As more is learned about financial abuse," writes Nerenberg, "financial gain is increasingly being recognized as a primary motive not only for financial abuse, but also for other forms of abuse, including neglect, intimidation, physical abuse and even homicide. For example, caregivers may deprive elders of needed care to make them more compliant or susceptible to undue influence, or they may attend to hasten the elder's death if they stand to benefit. …