Viewpoint: Financial abuse of elderly running rampant

July 1, 1993

Viewpoint: Financial abuse of elderly running rampant

By Joe Baker

Financial abuse of elderly running rampant

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

“Outside of execution, guardianship is the most radical remedy we have.”–Elias Cohen

Cohen, a Philadelphia attorney, put his focus on one of the most common sources of mistreatment of the elderly, fiduciary abuse by a guardian or conservator.

The Rock River Times has been reporting on one particular case in which an elderly woman’s assets have been steadily and methodically whittled down until the only thing of value she has left is a parking lot.

The elderly are especially vulnerable to financial exploitation because they often are more trusting than younger people. One of the most despicable forms of fiduciary abuse emanates from the very people and institutions charged with protecting the interests of an elderly or incompetent person—guardians, lawyers and the courts.

This blatant rip off of those least able to defend themselves is not just local or national, it is a global problem. In Winnebago County, there are numerous examples of estates raped and individuals left destitute by the machinery of the probate court.

The attorneys who are most often appointed as guardians are those who are coziest with the probate judge. In some places, such as Cook County, this chumminess is so blatant that one attorney was heard to tell a probate judge that the only thing left in a certain estate was a parcel of real estate. The legal eagle asked: “Do you want it, judge?”

If one examines the larger estates wending their way through probate court, it will be apparent that the same attorneys are named guardians in the majority of them. The assumption that an older person, whether incapacitated or not, is being properly cared for by his or her family is no longer valid and may never have been valid.

We’re living longer, and the number of non-family households is growing. It is natural for older people to want to remain independent and make their own decisions as long as possible. But the time comes when the courts enter the picture and take over the

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individual’s rights.

This is where greed and unscrupulous use of the law enter the picture. Too often, what was once a more than adequate estate to care for the elderly person for the rest of his or her days ends up in the pockets of those in or associated with the probate system.

Since 1980, the number of victims of elder abuse has risen by more than 50 percent. Somewhere around 5 percent of that number, or 1.5 million older Americans, are victims of financial abuse, neglect or other mistreatment.

Yes, there are laws to protect the elderly, but experts in this field say that only around one in eight cases is ever reported. Some states, such as California, have established teams of professionals to deal with this problem. It is debatable whether it would work here because the members of these teams are the very professionals who are the source of the problem.

Financial abuse can have a devastating effect on an older person. Younger people have the energy and means very often to rebound from monetary losses. The elderly can ill afford to lose their homes or their life savings. Many never recover and suffer irreparable mental anguish and distress.

Abuse of guardianships and legal documents and authority have become “licenses to steal.” It is an area that deserves intense scrutiny and more accountability.

The American Association of Retired Persons notes that the older portion of our population is growing rapidly, thereby making the need for prevention of elder abuse a pressing one. Centenarians are the fastest-growing age group in the country.

In some areas of the country, prosecutors have developed innovative and aggressive methods for prosecuting perpetrators of elder abuse, including financial abuse.

Correcting the problem here, as we have noted, will be tougher because the perpetrators are part of the establishment, and they have gone mostly unchallenged for a long time. That, however, does not mean we should not begin. Part of the responsibility for cleaning up this mess rests with the state legislature. We need to demand effective laws aimed at preventing and prosecuting such conduct.

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