As the baby boomer generation gets closer to retirement they become more concerned about their financial security and health care services. Conscientious senior citizens have planned for their future by working with an attorney to draw up an estate plan and will. However, even the most diligent seniors have fallen prey to a disturbing crisis in the form of elder abuse. Alleged friends, family, and neighbors have been filing for guardianship of the elderly, in numbers so alarming, that it raised red flags to government officials in Florida. Guardianship abuse reports reach across a broad spectrum including theft, kidnapping, forgery, assault, and criminal financial exploitation. Conspiracy to have seniors involuntarily committed to nursing homes and hospitals in order to gain control of their assets is a frightening reality faced by the elderly. Exploitation of the elderly has reached epidemic proportions in Florida; the country’s leading and most popular home for our senior citizens. This crisis forced state officials to take preemptive measures. Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller, Sharon Bock, Esq. spearheaded a new division in her office, designated to address this abuse. Four to five years ago, Bock noticed a 15% increase in guardianship filings. That trend, an increase in nearly four hundred new cases per year, has continued.
In Palm Beach County, it is estimated that the court governing guardianships maintains oversight of $500 million in assets. Oversight and monitoring of attorneys, caregivers, friends, and family members has proven to be daunting considering the staggering extent to which guardians and caregivers will go to misappropriate money. Stories of over-medicating, physical restraint, and psychological manipulation are not uncommon in the world of guardianship trustees. The County Clerk’s office reports that 90% of abusers are family members or trusted others. Due to elder exploitation, 1 in 10 financial abuse victims will turn to Medicaid as a direct result of their assets being stolen. As a result of the guardianship filings, Bock and the Chief Circuit Court Judge launched the Guardianship Fraud Program, a unique unit within the clerk’s office to deal with the slew of guardianship cases being filed. This unique division is only among a few in the entire country. Bock warns that “the aging conditions that Palm Beach County is experiencing right now will be felt by the rest of the country within the next 10 years.”
A reason for the increase in elderly guardianships can be attributed to the economic downturn. Relatives and other predators that have been hit by unemployment, foreclosure, and inflation are attracted to easy and vulnerable targets like the elderly. Florida is a hub for many elderly residents living far from out-of-state family and trusted friends. It is difficult to monitor the day-to-day health and financial status of loved ones from another state as well as protect them from sinister caregivers, neighbors, and other predators looking to exploit their trust.
In a recent case, 95 year-old, Florida resident, Philippe Tudela Barreda, a former attorney and diplomat of Peru, was allegedly exploited after his caregiver married and kidnapped him in order to secure his nearly $150 million estate. Mr. Barreda’s son, a diplomat and former Vice President of Peru, was successful at recovering his father and most of his assets after a harrowing and ongoing legal process. It was reported that Mr. Barreda was unable to sit up and speak when his family recovered him. He finally became coherent after 5 days in his family’s custody. The family is still working on having the marriage nullified.
The oversight and monitoring of elderly guardianships has fallen short of adequately addressing the increasing number to abuse cases, consequently, causing billions of dollars in assets to be left unguarded against fraud, misappropriation, and exploitation. Liz Messianu, Esq., an attorney managing a guardianship law practice out of Miami-Dade County, addressed this exploitation when she stated: “In 2008, I noticed a change from cases involving high net worth trusts of a million dollars or more to cases involving smaller amounts of thirty-thousand dollars or less. In Miami-Dade they do not have a special unit like in Palm Beach to deal with the crisis of elder exploitation.”
70% of Messianu’s practice is concentrated on guardianship cases in Miami-Dade, the county with the highest per capita adults over age 62. Attorney Messianu warns that elder exploitation will continue to increase as, “baby boomers age and blended families with step children and multiple relatives fighting over assets makes guardianship cases more common and more complicated.”
One case, currently being litigated in Pascoe County, Florida, is the case of 94 year-old Francis Endy. Endy and her husband moved to Florida upon retirement. She had no children and her relatives reside in New Jersey. Endy was in contact with her niece, Virginia Dilella, regularly. She made sure that her niece was aware of the presence and location of all her important papers and assets in her home along with ensuring deliverance of a copy of the house key. She drew up a will and told her niece the names of her attorney and bank manager. Endy told Ms. Dilella that if anything ever happened to call her attorney. After Endy lost her husband, her health declined. Ms. Dilella received a call from the neighbor explaining that her Aunt was acting odd and that he called an ambulance to attend to her. Using his personal attorney, the neighbor allegedly manipulated Endy into signing power of attorney over to him and subsequently had her committed to a nursing home. Moreover, Ms. Dilella was told that she wasn’t even entitled to medical information regarding her own Aunt.
Using his attorney, the neighbor was permitted to change all of Endy’s financial accounts. The neighbor had gained control of Endy’s and the entirety of her assets, including an account holding an estimated $1.6 million. When Ms. Dilella called the neighbor’s attorney to speak about her Aunt’s assets, he responded: “you’re not the trustee and I can’t to talk to you.” Upon further request, the family was denied health and financial information regarding Endy. After finally locating her Aunt, Ms. Dilella burst into tears at the sight of a frail semblance of a woman she knew as Aunt Francis, now devoid of her assets and subject to suspected physical abuse. The family is, currently, taking steps to secure Endy and her assets, but suspect that the accounts have been dissipated.
In more recent headlines, in Houston, Texas, it was nationally reported that 4 elderly men were being held in deplorable conditions against their will in a dungeon-like garage. The captor’s motivation was to cash in on the victims’ veteran and government assistance checks. One of the men, 79 year-old, William Greenawalt, died days after being freed. If the elderly are being targeted by criminals for their government assistance checks, then seniors with valuable assets are even more at risk for criminal exploitation.
All of the planning and best laid plans cannot protect the elderly from predators seeking to exploit and abuse them at a vulnerable stage in life. The cases of exploitation are so chronic that Florida is now documenting organized crime rings of caregivers that steal medication and conspire with others to commit burglary. Florida is at ground zero of elder exploitation and government officials have sounded the warning signal for the rest of the country, urging them to prepare for the "Silver Tsunami" of elderly exploitation coming their way soon.