On August 30, 2013, Rudy and Rennie North were home when there was a knock on the door. On the other side was a woman they had never met before. Her name was April Parks.
Parks announced to the Norths that she had been named their guardian and would be taking them to an assisted-living facility. She had an order from the Clark County Family Court to remove the Norths from their home.
The Norths were moved to an assisted-living facility where their only living child was rarely allowed to see them. Over the next few years, April Parks would sell their home, most of their belongings, and slowly drain their bank account through fees billed to their estate.
And the Norths were just one of hundreds of wards that Parks had as her career as a professional guardian.
The Norths’ sad tale – and eventual happier ending – is detailed in a New Yorker exposé. While their account seems extreme, it’s not. Stories of elder and guardianship abuse are all too common.
“There are predators waiting around us while we’re alive and after we die, some of them are in our family and sadly some of them are in the professional senior care world,” said Catherine Hammond, attorney at the Hammond Law Group, which practices only estate planning and elder law.
“I had a situation a few years ago where a client of mine had a family member drug him with what was probably horse tranquilizers and coerce him into signing the deeds to $2 million worth of properties into joint tenancy with her. So, when he died, all of his properties would go to her. It ended up going to the Colorado Supreme Court.”
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Protect Yourself and Your Estate
“This kind of stuff happens regularly,” said Hammond. “Sometimes it’s a family member, sometimes it’s a professional. There are attorneys who have stolen from their disabled clients, too. It’s horrifying; they’re supposed to be trusted advisors. Having a good solid plan in place can drastically minimize the chances that somebody can take advantage of you.”
One in 10 seniors age 60 and older have experienced some form of abuse, neglect or exploitation. Some estimates range as high as 5 million elders who are abused each year. According to a Government Accountability Office report, financial abuse, frequently by a guardian, is one of the most common types of elder abuse. Often, seniors are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit they have been scammed.
Fortunately, there are steps to protect against financial abuse.
“The best way is to establish a revocable living trust,” said Hammond. “With this, everything is now funded in the trust, meaning you don’t own your home anymore. The trust owns your home. You don’t own your bank accounts anymore. The trust owns your bank account.
“And you control the trust. Then, should you be deemed incapacitated, the person you personally selected now controls the trust for you. If somebody tries to take that person to court or file any paperwork with the court that says that somebody else needs to get legal authority over your assets, the judge doesn’t even have the power to give that control to anybody else. It is the kind of protection that you don’t get with a simple power of attorney.”
This begs the question: At what point should someone establish a revocable living trust?
“You should consider putting a revocable living trust in place if you own real estate or have concerns about becoming incapacitated,” said Hammond. “Even if you don’t own real estate, if you just have money in the bank and you live in a condo or retirement facility, control over your assets if you become incapacitated is still an issue. So everybody should at least consider having a trust, make an informed decision, because it has benefits for everybody.”
What To Do If You Suspect Elder Abuse
If you suspect someone is taking advantage of an elder loved one, there are some steps you can take to help him or her.
“The first thing to do is talk to anybody you suspect is doing something wrong,” said Hammond. “Sometimes people misjudge what other people or family members are doing. I see this kind of thing regularly. For example, one child lives with an elderly parent. And she is using mom’s money for mom’s needs. But the other kids think that because mom’s bank account is dwindling the person must be inappropriately using the money. So, first talk to anybody you have questions about directly and get more information.
“Then if you have further concerns there are two options. One is to call an elder law attorney, and they’ll be able to guide you through the way the system works and discuss what may or may not be an issue. Then, if there is something inappropriate going on, get it in front of the courts to straighten things out.
“The other option, if you think a crime being committed, is to call Adult Protective Services. They will investigate, and it’s a great way to immediately put a stop to anything inappropriate going on.”
While we have to acknowledge that there are predators in this world, we also need to recognize those that are here to help. By establishing a revocable living trust and knowing where to turn if you or a loved one needs help, you are taking great steps to protect yourself and your estate.
“There are certain people that are required reporters if they suspect elder abuse is going on. With my client it was a banker that called Adult Protective Services. That immediately froze everything, and there was an emergency hearing in front of the court to determine what was going on.
“We stopped any further abuse. However, the bulk of this gentleman’s property was in real estate, and the deeds had already been signed to include his relative. I had to refer this case to a full-time little litigator, and, last I heard, they had spent over $400,000 just in lawyers’ fees to try and get the property back. That’s not counting all of the other expenses.
“Sometimes things that have already transpired are hard and expensive to fix. If you have a properly drafted, properly funded revocable living trust, it’s much harder for that to happen.”
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How Caregivers and Their Families Can Thrive in the Holidays
Hammond Law Group provides timely estate planning advice for their clients, including the end-of-life documents that every family should have, including those caring for family members with dementia.