"Trust Betrayed: Financial Abuse of Older Americans by Guardians and Others in Power"

Earlier this year, an attorney in Belfast was sentenced to 30 months in prison for bilking two elderly female clients out of nearly a half a million dollars over the course of several years.

The lawyer’s brazen theft was uncovered when a teller at a local bank noticed that he was writing large checks to himself on his clients’ accounts. When confronted by authorities, he offered excuses that the prosecutor later described as “breathtaking.” For example, according to press reports, he put one of his clients into a nursing home to recover from a temporary medical condition, and then kept her there for four years until the theft of her funds came to light. Meanwhile, he submitted bills for “services,” sometimes totaling $20,000 a month, including charging her $250 per hour for six to seven hours to check on her house, even though his office was just a one-minute drive down the road.

Another tragic case of theft and abuse was featured in a Maine Sunday Telegram article last month. The article detailed the story of an elderly woman from Los Angeles, California, who went missing in 2008. In 2012, authorities found her, alive but in poor health, abandoned in a tiny cabin in Maine by three people who had “befriended” her years earlier. After gaining the woman’s trust, and control of her finances, these criminals sold her house and stole her money, cheating her of an estimated $1 million in assets. Today, this 90-year-old woman is a ward of the state and lives in a nursing home in rural Maine – thousands of miles away from the life she used to know.

These Maine cases represent shocking breaches of trust and shed light on a national epidemic of financial abuse of seniors by those they trust. Sometimes, that abuse is perpetrated by “friends” or family members who are handling the victim’s affairs informally. Other times, the abuse is committed under color of a fiduciary relationship, such as a Power of Attorney in the Maine cases, or what’s known as a conservatorship or guardianship. One would hope that this abuse would be unusual where guardians or conservators are involved since these fiduciaries are formally appointed and overseen by state courts. But experience has shown that this is not always the case.

As the Chairman of the Aging Committee, I have been long been concerned by guardianship abuse that robs seniors of their hard-earned savings and often puts their health and safety at risk. I recently chaired a hearing on this subject to examine the extent to which our seniors remain at risk of financial exploitation by guardians, and what is being done to protect them from this reprehensible crime. At my invitation, Jaye Martin, the Executive Director of Legal Services for the Elderly (LSE) in Maine, testified.

According to Ms. Martin, LSE assisted 260 victims of elder abuse during the last 12 months. This is a 24 percent increase from the prior year. While this number includes physical and emotional abuse as well, roughly half of the cases handled by LSE involved financial exploitation of seniors. Even more alarming was Ms. Martin’s testimony that in 75 percent of those cases, the financial exploitation was carried out by a family member. Unfortunately, these numbers only represent the tip of the iceberg, since so many abuse cases go unreported. Oftentimes, victims are too ashamed or afraid to alert authorities about financial exploitation, particularly when it involves a family member.

During the hearing, the Committee heard testimony about some of the promising initiatives that are being undertaken at the state level to combat this form of financial exploitation. One such example is Minnesota’s Conservator Account Auditing Program, which monitors guardians of seniors by requiring them to file regular reports. The state uses an automated software-based system that scans these conservator reports for 30 "red flags" that may indicate abuse or mismanagement of the estate. Minnesota is making this innovative software reporting and analysis system available to other states free of charge.

Legal organizations like Ms. Martin’s, and others around the nation, are also a significant part of the solution to this burgeoning problem and are making a real difference. I asked Ms. Martin whether additional tools would be beneficial to her efforts on the frontlines to better protect seniors. In response, she noted that Maine’s innovative Senior$afe program has been an “extraordinary success,” and she was thrilled that I introduced a bill earlier this Congress that would take this concept to the nation. My Senior$afe Act would help protect seniors by encouraging banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions to train their employees to spot financial abuse of older Americans and report it to the proper authorities.

Seniors in need of assistance to manage their financial affairs should not have their trust betrayed, leaving them destitute in some cases. While progress is being made, and most guardians are ethical, much more needs to be done to oversee guardians and uncover potential abuse in time to stop it. It is essential that the federal and state governments work together to better ensure that guardians are protecting vulnerable seniors, not stealing from them.