Here at AgingParents.com, we hear just about every age-related problem you can think of. Families bring up issues about cognitive decline most often. We’re in the advice business for families of elders. When I first learned of a minority group using its common ground with ethnically related elders as a particularly slimy way to steal from them, I was appalled. But now that it has come up more than once, I must raise the red flag for all to see.
These crime rings, as I call them, work like this—many of their elders are foreign born and the oldest may struggle with English no matter how long they’ve lived in the U.S.. These elders are alway more comfortable with “their own”. The elders trust those who speak their first language. They trust those who share cultural, religious and other habits in common. This sets them up nicely for being targeted by unscrupulous members of their own ethnic group. It can be any ethnicity. Aging is aging and predators find way to steal any way they can.
I have heard about pastors of their churches being the ringleaders. Tax preparers in the congregation say they’ll file the returns for their limited English-speaking members. They do and then keep the refunds. They make threats. They intimidate. They persuade the elder to change the power of attorney, or the trust in their favor, cutting out rightful heirs. I have no idea how widespread this is but in my small world, it has come to my attention several times.
Here is just one real life example:
Mya, age 91 is widowed, lives alone and has a valuable home. She has cognitive impairment and is quite hard of hearing. She has only one son, who lives out of state. Her English is limited. A family friend, not of her ethnic group, had agreed to list her home for sale and help her deal with transition to a place where she can be appropriately cared for. She signed a listing agreement with him. Afterwards, “Ono”, a member of her minority group who also knew her through her church, began to visit regularly and develop a “friendship” with Mya. Ono knows the son and knows that he is very busy and does not visit Mya often. She schemed what to do to get the real estate listing away from Mya’s other friend. Not only that, she knew that Mya’s son was appointed power of attorney and is Mya’s sole heir. She set to work to change that.
The law in many states calls what Ono did a classic case of undue influence. She used her relationship of trust, Mya’s vulnerability, and her frequent visits to maneuver Mya into making changes. First, she took Mya to the bank and tried to get her to withdraw $10,000. The bank, suspecting undue influence, denied the transaction. Good! But Ono didn’t stop there. She found a bilingual lawyer who speaks their language and Ono probably posed as a relative. She persuaded Mya to ask the lawyer to create a new trust, drafted in both their language and in English, to change the person who would be in charge of Mya from Mya’s son to Ono. The lawyer did draft the trust. But when Ono again took Mya to the bank, presumably to try to withdraw money to pay the unsuspecting lawyer, the bank again declined the transaction. The lawyer refused to provide the trust and destroyed it. But things could easily have gone the other way at the bank.
Ono is unlikely to stop her efforts to trick Mya into changing her estate plan to benefit Ono, and cut out her son. Mya’s son has legal options. First, he can report the ugly scheme to Ono’s real estate broker, who is responsible for what the agent, Ono does. He can only hope that the broker is not in on the evil scheme. Next, he can collect all the evidence he has of what Ono is doing and hire a lawyer to ask the court for a “stay away order” against Ono. That is likely to be granted, from my point of view as a lawyer myself. Finally, Mya’s trust has a provision in it that says if two doctors evaluate her for incapacity in managing her financial affairs, she is removed as trustee over her trust and her son then takes over. That evaluation got scheduled but only after Ono’s foiled efforts to get money from Mya.
Could This Have Been Prevented?
We say yes, the scheme could have been stopped early on, without things reaching the dangerous level they reached. Mya’s son could have done the following things, acting promptly after his father passed, leaving Mya alone and vulnerable to predators.
- When an aging parent is widowed, step in right away and address the issue of whether that widowed person is truly capable of managing the finances. If a surviving parent has memory loss or other signs of decline, look at the trust and see what it takes to have them removed if they resist resigning voluntarily. Take action! Get the evaluation by a doctor done right away.
- If a vulnerable elder is alone, has no caregivers, and has no family nearby, find a way to move them to a safer living situation. In Mya’s case, her son neglected to do anything for far too long. The house should have been promptly sold and Mya moved.
- Impaired elders in their 90s absolutely should not be living alone, particularly with the hearing loss, limited English, memory loss and general frailty Mya had. We fault her son for allowing this situation to exist when it could have been stopped by his taking reasonable action to protect Mya.
- If you are part of an ethnic minority, know that this could have a serious downside . Evil people can use their minority common ground with elders to take advantage, manipulate, steal and abuse, using undue influence.
For anyone with a cognitively impaired aging parent who is to take over managing a trust and other finances after becoming widowed, do not allow that parent to continue as the sole trustee or otherwise in charge of bank accounts. That is a setup for losing everything. A responsible family member can do the right thing to stop the criminals from succeeding.