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A rare victory in the fight against elderly exploitation

Brooke Astor is far from alone.  With all of the media attention on the criminal trial of Brooke Astor's son in New York, for allegedly exploiting her declining mental state to obtain control of property worth 60 million dollars, there is a feeling of many that it's a problem that would only happen to the rich and famous.

This couldn't be farther from the truth.  Especially with today's turbulent economic times, the temptation to take advantage of an elderly person with a trusting nature, questionable mental competence, and -- oh yes -- money in the bank, is much more common than people realize.  In fact, the National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that five million senior citizens become victims of financial exploitation each and every year.  Elderly woman B&W

Sadly, most of these cases go unreported.  Even the reported ones rarely result in legal action.  Police, prosecutors and other government agencies taking action to recover property obtained through fraud, exploitation or undue influence (in other words, taking advantage of a senior's mental limitations) are very rare.  They lack the resources, staffing and time to do so. 

It's hard to prove that someone elderly wasn't competent the moment when the event in question happened.  And, of course, having no witnesses to the event (other than those involved) sure makes it tough.

That's why I found this Connecticut Post article intriguing.  It reports a rare situation where a State Attorney General discovered a case of exploitation against an elderly woman and took action.  Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal intervened in a probate case in 2005 after Mona Lee Johnson agreed to sell her house one month before she died. 

What's wrong with selling a house?  She apparently signed a document agreeing to sell it to her neighbor and longtime accountant for $500,000.  The catch is that the house was worth 1.2 million dollars.  And Johnson was sick and in the hospital when she signed it. 

The Attorney General's office intervened because she had left her estate to charity.  In Connecticut, like most states, the Attorney General's office is notified in certain probate estates that involve charities, so that someone can protect the interest of those charities. 

It's a good thing too.  The probate judge originally approved the discounted sale price.  Had it not been for the Attorney General, the sale would have gone through unhindered.

After Blumenthal challenged the sale, the same probate judge held a court hearing and determined that Johnson wasn't competent when she signed the papers.  Now her true wishes can be honored, and the charities she intended to benefit from her estate can do so.

Sadly, this case is a exception, not the general rule.  In most instances where senior citizens sign paperwork when they have dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or another condition that prevents them from understanding it, it's up to the family members to take legal action.  State Attorney Generals only get involved in rare cases where charities need to be protected -- and even then, it's very unusual.

That's why, at the first sign of trouble, it's important for people who suspect financial abuse of someone elderly to talk to an experienced probate litigation attorney.  Whether they question a will change, new trust, joint bank account, insurance beneficiary switch, or outright theft, it's always easier to take legal action sooner rather than later.  A good probate lawyer can tell you what options you have.  But it's almost important to act quickly. 

Because once the money is gone, it's gone. 

Of course, it's almost impossible to recover all of what was taken, when you factor in legal fees and court costs.  That's why prevention is key.  

How?  Help your elderly loved ones.  Discuss their finances with them when you have concerns of memory loss or confusion.  And watch for the Warning Signs of Financial Abuse

Posted by:  Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs:  Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder 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.  You can email him at awmayoras @

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