Financial elder abuse is the fastest growing form of elder abuse, costing victims some $2.9 billion in 2016. The rapid growth has caused some to refer to it as “the crime of the century.” Unfortunately, most abusers are family members, thus, only one in 44 cases of this kind of abuse are ever reported.
–National Adult Protection Services Association
I hate to admit it, but I’m one of those statistics who failed to report a family member’s attempt to financially abuse my dad. Had I known then what I now know, I would have gone to the authorities. My family financial abuse experience was an unexpected, terrifying and deceitful situation that I want to share as a cautionary tale to others whose parents are elderly; particularly if you have only one surviving parent or if your parents live at a distance. As you will see, the level of one’s intellect has little to do with the victim’s vulnerability, so be aware and don’t let your loved one become a victim of family financial abuse.
The phone rang shortly before noon on a Sunday morning in April, as it had every Sunday morning for the six years since Mom died. Dad continued to live in the house he and mom had retired to in St. Petersburg, Florida and although my husband and I visited him at least once every year, these Sunday phone calls were our weekly way of keeping up-to-date. Unlike most Sundays, Dad sounded weaker than normal. At the end of our talk I asked, “Are you feeling okay? You don’t sound like yourself.” He admitted feeling a bit sick to his stomach but thought he just needed to lie down and rest, which is what he planned to do after our call. “Let me know if you’re not feeling better,” I urged.
I wasn’t overly concerned, partially because Dad wasn’t alone. My cousin Gary from Canada, and his companion Jan were there. For the past six years they had gone to Florida during the winters and stayed with my dad for as long as the Canadian government would allow them to be gone without losing their health benefits. It was an arrangement I never felt good about. I knew Gary as a very self-serving individual and someone I felt was taking advantage of Dad’s loneliness. But Dad liked the company and overlooked Gary’s self-centered ways because he was the only child of his younger brother who had died. Since they were there, I figured Gary would call if my dad got any sicker.
The next day I tried calling Dad several times, always getting his answering machine. I never left a message, figuring that I’d get him later. I didn’t, so finally that night I left a message: “Dad, this is Bette. I’ve been concerned because when we talked yesterday you weren’t feeling good and I wanted to know how you’re doing, so please give me a call when you get this. Love you.” Dad never called that night but the next day when I collected my voice mails after a morning meeting with a client, I had a message. But it was from Gary—a very angry sounding Gary. His message was shocking. Dad was in the hospital.
According to Gary, I was not to know so I wouldn’t worry and hop on a plane, but none of that sounded reasonable. I called Gary back. He was quite abrupt and still angry, saying he was now put in the middle. I held my composure and assured him that I was just glad he was there and asked that he keep me informed. But as soon as I hung up I called the hospital. That’s when I got shock number two. The charge nurse refused to give me any information. “But I’m his daughter; I have his medical power and power of attorney,” I argued. Still she refused and rather abruptly ended the call.
Troubled by her refusal, I wondered what on earth was going on. Out of desperation I called back and asked for the president’s office. I explained my dilemma to his secretary who graciously asked for time to check things out and call me back. When she called I got one more shock. “Do you know a woman named April Stone (not her real name)?” she asked. “No,” I responded. “I was afraid of that,” she said. “She’s an attorney and she has your father’s power of attorney and medical power.”
Nothing had prepared me for this. Nothing made sense. Why dad would ever consider changing attorneys, let alone take my powers away? After Mom’s death he had been adamant about establishing a trust naming me, his only child, as successor trustee and giving me all the necessary powers. Quickly I called his original attorney. He sensed real trouble. “If that’s been changed other things have been changed,” he said. “When can you get here?”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. It was the week before Easter and every airline was booked solid. Fortunately, one agent realized the seriousness of my plight and used my husband’s mileage to bump two passengers and book us the next morning for a flight to Tampa. Once there, things became quite clear and it wasn’t a pretty picture.
According to Dad, around Christmas, Gary had boldly asked Dad if he was leaving him anything in his trust. Dad responded that he’d left him a few thousand dollars, which seemed to enrage Gary. Dad owed him the house, he demanded. After all, they came each year and ‘took care of him.’ Initially Dad got angry; later he felt guilty. Gary then convince Dad that a lawyer he’d met could change the trust so that Gary got the house and everything else continued to go to Bette. Dad acquiesced. Little did he realize that in the process, the lawyer also took away my powers and granted them to herself.
Dad now said that in retrospect, once the trust was changed, Gary and Jan acted different. They also suggested he have a glass of red wine every night to make him sleep better. And, as time progressed he heard Gary on the phone, talking to the Canadian authorities saying that he needed to extend his stay because he was “taking care of an ill uncle.” Yet at that time, Dad wasn’t ill. It was all beginning to look very suspicious. Dad was beginning to put things together, too, and now confessed that what was also strange was that instead of taking him to the hospital when he vomited blood, Gary called a cab. By now, Dad was asking me to contact his original lawyer who agreed to come to the hospital that afternoon.
Dad also wanted my husband and I to go to the house and retrieve documents from his safe, but he was concerned about Gary’s behavior. So, when the lawyer arrived, he arranged for us to be accompanied by a private detective the following day. In the meantime, he followed Dad’s other directive and advised Gary to immediately start packing and leave the house. Then, he set about reinstating my powers and restoring Dad’s trust.
The next day was surreal as we met with this private investigator. This guy looked like a Texas gunslinger—a man in his 60s, with a handlebar mustache, wearing cowboy boots and hat with a gun holster on his hips. He and his partner followed us to Dad’s house driving a big-old white Lincoln Continental with large searchlights on each side. Once at the house, we were to wait while one went to the front door, the other to the back. When he motioned, we entered the house and quickly began our mission. Gary and Jan were ordered to the garage where they continued packing. Once everything was collected, we left and proceeded to the nearest bank to open a safe deposit box for the documents. To say the whole experience was bizarre and unnerving is an understatement.
By now, my powers had been restored and I was able to talk to Dad’s doctor. I asked what caused his bleeding. “See these marks like scratch marks,” he said, pointing to an x-ray of Dad’s stomach. “That’s what caused him to vomit blood, but I don’t know what caused it.” Between that and the fact that Dad told us Gary had sent Dad to the hospital in a cab, I, to this day, have my suspicions.
By week’s end, Dad was released to a nursing home to restore his strength. As far as we knew, Gary and Jan returned to Canada. For the next several months I flew to Florida every-other week while a private care company handled things in-between. Weeks later, I was relieved when the lawyer advised that the original trust has been restored. By July, it appeared Dad wasn’t going to be able to go home alone, so we made arrangements to bring him to Dallas to be cared for in a nursing home near us. But on the weekend we flew to Florida to bring him to Dallas, he was rushed to the hospital and slipped into a coma. All we could do was hug him and say our final goodbyes. Within hours of arriving back in Dallas, the phone rang. Dad had died.
I was blessed to have Dad for 97 years, most of which were filled with great memories of a man with an incredible determination to live life to the fullest. Sadly, all it took was one self-centered, greedy family member to victimize him in his lonely days.
That’s my story of family financial abuse. But there are hundreds more—each with their own shock, pain and anguish. By the year 2030, 20 percent of our population will be senior citizens—that’s 1 out of every 5 Americans. Add to this that 70 percent of the nation’s wealth is controlled by people over the age of 50. Thus, the aging baby boomer population is growing the victim pool for family financial abuse, making this target much more attractive. Be vigilant. Don’t let it be you or your parents.