By Tim Barkley. November 2016.
Elderly and alone, my client had faced the future with fear. Widowed and childless, she relied on her money to secure her the attentions of her neighbors and nieces. Money was the carrot; the stick was her threat to write them out of the will.
Ambitious and unscrupulous, some of the recipients believed they had found an opportunity too good to pass up. They became perpetually importunate, sad faces masking an insatiable greed.
This is the stuff of Dickens novels and elder law practices. It is often the duty and privilege of elder practitioners to protect the vulnerable from sociopaths who believe that weakness is an invitation to abuse.
How do you protect those you love from “helpful” friends and relatives? Several steps will make rapacity hard to conceal and easier to thwart.
First, make sure your loved one has established a relationship with a competent attorney and financial and medical professionals. The fact that your aunt or grandfather has visited and gotten to know an attorney will make less credible a new will or power of attorney benefiting a distant relative, drawn up by an attorney your loved one never met before.
If your elderly cousin has a long-standing relationship with a doctor (a rare commodity these days), a certification of incompetency drawn by a stranger would be suspicious. A brand-new brokerage account with a new broker would be more likely resisted if your loved one had a decades-long, mutually fruitful relationship with a broker. Of course, if a distant relative is the beneficiary of the account, that’s a tip-off.
Second, make sure estate documents are kept current. Wills should have updated distribution arrangements, and should be reviewed periodically. Fiduciary designations – executors, agents and trustees – should be revised as necessary.
Third, make sure important documents are kept in a secure location. If you can’t find the original will, power of attorney or medical directive, it can’t be used to protect your loved one. A safe deposit box or locked fireproof strongbox are good choices, as long as a trustworthy person has access. Conversely, an unscrupulous relative in possession of a power of attorney can abuse it – protect your loved one by securing the documents.
Fourth, keep lines of communication open. This can be more difficult than it seems. People value their privacy, and might not want to disclose their dealings. The surreptitious lunch with a cousin or the sudden return of a long-lost friend might be “just our secret,” and your loved one might not want to make it known.
Fifth, if possible, be aware of out-of-the-ordinary financial dealings. In this day of privacy statutes and regulations, making it paradoxically easy for the government and hard for anyone else to find out your affairs, the helpful local banker or broker who will call and alert you to problems is becoming a rare commodity. Yet the banker or broker who knows something is amiss is often distraught. Finding a way to bridge the privacy gap is difficult, but can be critical to protecting vulnerable elders.
Because sometimes even well-meaning family and friends are kept at arms length by their elderly relatives, it can be a challenge to assist them. If they are in failing health, either mentally or physically, the need becomes imperative, but can become nearly insurmountable as they struggle more and more to assert their autonomy.
Mental health professionals and social workers can help in determining when your elderly loved one needs assistance, and what assistance is needed. This writer, various public agencies including the county Office on Aging, and other elder professionals can provide referrals to qualified individuals.
Assisting vulnerable elderly persons can be a challenge on many fronts, but the challenge is far outweighed by the satisfaction of serving those most in need.
Attorney Tim Barkley
The Tim Barkley Law Offices
One Park Avenue
P.O. Box 1136
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