Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Cautionary Tales about Financial Abuse

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Cautionary Tales about Financial Abuse

Article excerpt

I've been fielding lots of calls and emails about last week's column on elder fraud, including two heart-rending conversations with older Floridians telling stories about trusted adult children who wiped out their bank accounts.

I also heard from Jack Windt, a Sarasota attorney for 54 years, who said the idea of training more lawyers to spot elder fraud compelled him to point out some of the complexities involved in this sort of judgment call.

Windt is one of those vanishing breeds in a world of specialization: a general attorney who engages in all sorts of family and business law for his clients. He has drawn up quite a few wills in his time, and he's seen some things.

There was the client who tried to disinherit her only son so she could leave an estate worth more than $1 million to her dance instructor. Another, a two-time widow approaching her 100th birthday and without children, wanted to leave a percentage of her money to the Salvation Army and the balance to her chiropractor.

"This naturally brings up the question of undue influence or coercion, but there are quite a few facets to this," he said. "You have to take this on a case-by-case situation. It's very difficult to delve into a client's reasoning."

Southwest Florida, he said, is like anyplace with a high concentration of retirees who may not live close to their families. Many elders here are on their own, hungering for companionship, vulnerable to a friendly face.

"I have seen many cases over the years, where a longtime client wants me to draw up a new will that eliminates a child or two so that they can put in the cabana boy," he said. "All of a sudden, he's in there."

Having a lifelong relationship with a client, Windt added, is no guarantee that the client will listen to reason in these cases. But he tries anyway, asking the client probing questions, and urging him or her to sleep on the matter for a few days before signing anything. If all else fails, he said, he can refuse to act -- and has sometimes done so.

"I can say, sorry, I'm just not comfortable with this," he said.

This isn't only a question of stranger danger; sometimes it's a family member who violates an elder's trust. …

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