When it comes to elders and their assets, greed and creativity combine to produce an endless variety of schemes to defraud. Here are some actual fact patterns from my case files over the past few years.
I just can't wait until you die…
A favorite nephew is the sole beneficiary of Joe's living trust. Joe is childless and disabled. He lives in a trailer on his 10 acres of land, which has increased in value. Joe notices that this year, he didn't receive a property tax bill. A concerned neighbor does some digging and finds out that 4 years ago, the nephew fraudulently obtained Joe's signature on a gift deed of the land and has only now recorded it. Joe is now penniless and needs help getting his property back in his name.
You forgot to pay me
George is in his 80s and lives independently, although he has a regular caregiver, Bessie, hired by his concerned daughter. George is starting to get a little forgetful. He can't recall whether he's paid Bessie for her services. She takes advantage by having George repeatedly sign checks made out to her, which she then forwards to relatives in the Philippines. George's daughter checks his bank statements and discovers the fraud, totaling $50,000.
Throw me some scraps
Arlene is 84 and lives with her 91-year-old husband, who has severe dementia. Arlene has a lot of health problems and is mostly house-bound. Her two sons are her agents under a power of attorney and control their parents' finances. Although Arlene and her husband live rent-free and have ample Social Security and pension income, when her daughter Serena visits she notices that the couple have almost no clothing and there is often no fresh food in the fridge. The washing machine is broken and the home needs repair. Serena contacts her brothers and insists that they provide food, clothing and services for their elderly parents. In response, Arlene's sons send over a $300 gift card to a grocery store.
Mom loved me more…and I deserve it all
Carol and her husband have been having severe financial problems. Shirley, Carol's elderly, widowed mother, has recently had a stroke but still lives on her own in the family home. Shirley also has several sons and many grandchildren. Carol repeatedly tells Shirley that her sons are planning to put her in a nursing home and take her property, which upsets Shirley a great deal. Carol brings her mother to Carol's lawyer, who drafts a living trust naming Carol and her two sons as the sole beneficiaries of her estate.
Get rich quick - leave Mom and Dad homeless
Bobby has always been Mom's favorite. Dad, who has dementia, is a retired doctor who made a good living and the couple own a lovely home, where they plan to stay for the rest of their lives. Bobby has a business scheme, and it's sure to succeed. The only thing is, he needs $1 million for this investment. Mom can't say no to Bobby, so she takes out a $1 million home equity loan and gives the proceeds to Bobby, who spends the money on expensive vacations, entertainment, and drugs. Mom and Dad lose their longtime home to foreclosure.
How to protect your elders - and yourself
Visit or call frequently. Be alert for signs of impaired memory and judgment. Offer to help manage finances - and be transparent about it with other family members to avoid falling under suspicion yourself. If caregivers are in place, drop by frequently and unexpectedly. If memory and cognition begin to decline, have Mom and Dad appointed a trusted person under a durable power of attorney for financial affairs. Make sure you have copies of any estate planning documents, and if there are none, encourage Mom and Dad to independently create one before they lose the capacity to do so. Check the county recorder's records for any suspicious property transactions. Be alert. And at the first sign of a problem, call police or contact an elder law attorney.