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Watch For Signs of Financial Elder Abuse 

August 3, 2016

When she was more than 100 years old, onetime New York socialite Brooke Astor became America’s most famous case of financial elder abuse. Her son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted of stealing tens of millions of dollars of her assets.

Her grandson Philip Marshall testified against his father and helped put him in jail. Today, Philip Marshall does speaking engagements around the country, talking about the red flags of such abuse. For years, Marshall recalls, his battle for his grandmother, and his battle against his father, consumed his life—and consumed the family.

Astor died in 2007 at the age of 105. In 2009, after his father’s six-month criminal trial, Philip Marshall said, he realized that when elder abuse hits home, it hurts deeply. Marshall reflected on the sobering thought that while his grandmother was emotionally and financially abused, her case is far from isolated. Millions of victims suffer a similar injury. He notes, sadly, that he watched his grandmother’s world diminished and compromised by her own son.

Anthony Marshall, a former U.S. ambassador, and Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, died in 2014 after being convicted of conning his mother into altering her will so he could gain control of her fortune, estimated at $200 million. He then disinherited his two children, Philip and Alexander, whose testimony put him in prison for swindling his mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Philip Marshall recalls that after his father’s trial and after heart-wrenching testimony, this was a very bittersweet harvest. Awareness and advocacy are both critical, stated Marshall. The elderly can be very vulnerable, especially when the perpetrators of financial elder abuse are their own children.

Philip Marshall admits that he could have very easily disregarded calls for help from staff, caregivers, and friends. He could have found false consolation in thinking his grandmother had had a good life and, in the throes of dementia, was not cognizant of her circumstances. Additionally, he found that it would have been easier to maintain the fallacy that families should not air their dirty linen in public—even when financial assets are being stolen. Marshall believes that banks should monitor accounts owned by seniors, much as brokerage firms monitor customer accounts. He looks to Wall Street for an example, remarking that, “If Grandma is cashing $25,000 checks to a brand-new person, banks should take note. They can use data mining to flag unusual transactions.” Banks that detect unusual transactions can then report to law enforcement and Adult Protective Services, or share with a third party—a practice known as permissive reporting.

A model for this practice is SeniorSafe in Maine, which is spearheaded by Judith Shaw, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association. SeniorSafe is a collaborative effort by Maine regulators, financial institutions, and legal organizations that educates bank and credit union employees on how to identify and help stop financial exploitation of older adults.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), 4.1% of elderly adults self-report ‘major financial exploitation’—a statistic that is shocking in and of itself, but also due to the fact that seniors often neglect to report the problem out of fear or lack of capacity. Below are some tips to help prevent your aging relative from falling victim to this type of crime:

  1. Recognize the most common targets: Elderly women are targeted more often than men, and the risk of being targeted increases with age, notes the NCEA. Individuals with disabilities are at a greater risk, as well.
  2. Recognize the most common perpetrators: Those whom the elderly trust the most are usually the culprits. As in the case of Brooke Astor, approximately 90 percent of abusers are family members, according to the NCEA. The NCEA notes that family members who abuse alcohol or drugs, have a mental illness, or feel burdened by their elderly relative’s abuse at higher rates than those who do not. Professional caregivers represent 12% of all perpetrators.
  3. Warning signs: Consumer Reports notes the following as warning signs of elder financial abuse: bank statements no longer coming to the home; changes in a power of attorney or will; changes in attorneys or banks; changes in beneficiaries; lack of personal amenities; large or unexplained bank transfers or withdrawals; missing property; new authorized signers on her accounts; unfamiliar signatures on important documents.
  4. Communicate with your family: Consumer Reports recommends having a family discussion to discuss your relative’s long-term care. Oftentimes, family members will look after an elderly relative, and commonly these family members take money without permission as ‘pay’ for their services. Be sure to include how the caregiver(s) will be compensated, so things don’t get tricky later and caregivers do not get greedy with self-compensation. Have an attorney draft a personal care agreement to avoid confusion.
  5. Go with your elderly relatives to meetings with financial advisors: It’s unfortunately possible for financial advisors paid on commission to ‘recommend’ financial products that your elderly relatives might find helpful. While there are often regulatory safeguards set up to limit or prevent such activity, it does not hurt to physically accompany your elderly relative to this meeting to insure they’re not being ripped off.
  6. Safeguard valuables: Be sure to document in an itemized list all of your elderly relative’s valuables (along with photographs of these items).

Please contact Tiveron Law with any questions about the above material, or if you wish to speak to an attorney, at 716-636-7600. Tiveron Law is located at 2410 North Forest Road in Amherst, New York 14068, with additional offices in Buffalo, Lancaster, and Lockport.