It's been more than 18 months since the daughter of France's richest woman sued to protect her from a man described as a "dandy" who had received more than $1 billion (U.S. value) in gifts from the owner of cosmetic giant L'Oreal. You can read The Probate Lawyer Blog's last article on the case here.
The daughter of 87-year-old Liliane Bettencourt sued Francois-Marie Banier, a 63-year old (male) celebrity photographer who reportedly has befriended Johnny Depp, Salvador Dali and others. Banier claims the lavish gifts of cash and art masterpieces were given to him by Bettencourt when she was mentally competent as a thank-you for his years of friendship and help as an advisor.
Bettencourt's daughter, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, was permitted to sue Banier criminally last year. This means that if she wins her lawsuit, Banier will not only have to return the money, but also face jail time. The case was set for trial late last week.
There was already plenty of intrigue surrounding the famous fortune fight over the person who ranks as number 20 on Forbes' annual list of richest people. (Bettencourt has a reported net worth of $20 billion.) But, to make it more interesting, the trial was postponed indefinitely because of new evidence.
What evidence you ask? Bettencourt's butler had been sneaking a tape recorder into the room with her when he served refreshments. With this recorder, he obtained hours of audiotape from secret meetings between Bettencourt and her advisors.
The Associated Press reports that the tapes reveal the elderly Bettencourt was treated like a child in these meetings and was often confused, to the point where she had forgotten having given Banier a private island. (Now that's not something easy to forget.)
These tapes also revealed that Bettencourt had almost $100 million stashed away in foreign bank accounts and wasn't paying taxes on the money. Reportedly, a top French government official, Eric Woerth, was forced to resign because he knew about it. Woerth's wife worked for a company that managed Bettencourt's money.
Why was this scandalous? Woerth was France's Budget Minister. One of his primary duties was combating tax evasion. Reportedly, Bettencourt was a big donor to Woerth's political party (which also includes the French President).
Financial exploitation (alleged financial exploitation at this point -- but it sure doesn't look good for Banier) sure can be messy. But the sad part is that it is far from an isolated occurrence and it certainly doesn't affect only the wealthy.
It's a growing epidemic in this country. The National Center on Elder Abuse has estimated that there are up to five million victims each year. Here are the Center's Warning Signs of Elder Financial Abuse.
This is a serious problem, especially with the turbulent economy. Many perceive seniors as easy marks with available savings to exploit. Don't let this happen to your elderly loved ones.
Be proactive. Watch over your aging family member's finances when you suspect trouble (or when they show confusion, memory loss or other signs of dementia or Alzheimer's disease). And don't hesitate to seek the help of an experienced elder law or probate litigation attorney, or another expert who can help.
Bettencourt's daughter was smart to intervene when she did. It wasn't easy for her -- she sadly reports that her mother cut off communications with her because of the lawsuit. Who knows what would have happened if she hadn't taken action?
Posted by: Andrew W. Mayoras and Danielle B. Mayoras, co-authors of Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founders of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. Andrew and Danielle are husband and wife attorneys, professional speakers and consultants across the country. Follow us on Facebook and Google+.