Many of us spend our entire working lives saving and planning for the “golden years.” We build nest eggs to ensure we will be cared for when it is needed. We pay off mortgages, keep money in low-risk “investments,” and carefully watch our pennies knowing when our ability to earn more ends, we will live off Social Security, pensions and investment income.
Then, just when everything seems to be under control, something happens to jeopardize well-laid plans. Physical or mental health fails, a spouse dies, or we can no longer drive. Our independence evaporates, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. Things we used to take for granted become almost impossible to do. We become dependent on others for basic needs: paying bills, shopping, cooking, cleaning or taking medications. We might find ourselves vulnerable and possibly alone. None of us are immune from age-related vulnerability.
The typical “vulnerable adult” often starts toward dependency slowly and reluctantly. A relative or friend is added to bank accounts to help pay bills. A power of attorney is suggested to give the “trusted individual” additional authority to conduct business. Soon, rather than merely providing assistance, the trusted individual starts making unilateral decisions without the knowledge or consent of the vulnerable adult.
Many times, the trusted person acts in the best interest of the vulnerable adult. Too often, however, we have seen in our legal practice that the very person entrusted with helping, protecting and caring for the vulnerable adult takes advantage of this position of trust. The vulnerable adult becomes the perfect victim: defenseless, disbelieved because of “obvious incapacity” issues, or written off because of the authority voluntarily placed in the hands of the trusted person. It can happen to anyone. And it does happen. It could happen to you or to someone you know.
When we tell people what we do for a living (the legal protection of vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect or exploitation), most people are in awe that we have enough business in Clark County to keep four attorneys busy. And while we may be the only firm that focuses our practice on these cases, several other attorneys handle these cases, as well.
In most cases, these positions of trust that the vulnerable adult created by consent or circumstance are flaunted by the abuser as an “absolute defense” against the most egregious acts: keeping a vulnerable adult living in deplorable conditions, withholding medical treatment, raiding bank and investments accounts, deeding property to themselves or others, and otherwise taking actions that are completely at odds with the vulnerable adult’s interests. Tragically, this “defense” often works. Society struggled with child abuse response in the 1950s and ’60s and domestic violence in the ’70s and ’80s. But now with mandatory laws and a change in societal response to these tragedies, we are much better equipped to deal with child abuse and domestic violence. But with vulnerable adult abuse, we have a long way to go.
So what can we do to prevent being a victim of vulnerable adult abuse? The answer is simple: Plan ahead and protect one another by taking action. These are some of the things you can do to plan ahead:
• Make sure that you have the appropriate legal documents in place that will help you and your “trusted individual” make appropriate decisions for you. Be certain to make it well known what your expectations are. If you only want to give check-signing authority, don’t sign a document that gives authority to sell or mortgage your property.
• Share this information with more than one person, so that you will have an advocate watching out for you. Unfortunately, secrecy leads to the opportunity to abuse.
• Don’t sign anything you do not fully understand. When in doubt, ask your attorney, accountant, financial advisor or someone else with the knowledge and education you need to help you out.
• Place your trust in the hands of a person who truly deserves it. Don’t appoint someone to handle your finances if they have made a mess of their own financial life. If you can’t think of a family member or friend, appoint a licensed professional fiduciary to help you if you can’t help yourself. The cost you may pay for a professional could be a tiny fraction of the money that is taken from you in the hands of the wrong person.
You can avoid a trip to our office after bad things have already happened by being as cautious in preparing for the time that you need help as you were in preparing for the future your entire life.
The other piece of advice we have is to look out for each other. Call 911, or 877-734-6277 (866-END-HARM) when abuse, neglect or exploitation is suspected. The call can be anonymous and you just may save someone’s life savings, or prevent an early demise. After all, when someone’s life savings is depleted, it is the taxpayers (you and I) who pick up the tab via government assistance.
Jessica W. Dimitrov and James D. Senescu are partners in the Vancouver law firm of Dimitrov, Senescu & Bennett, PLLC. Their practice focuses primarily on cases involving the abuse of vulnerable adults, guardianships, probates, and fiduciary litigation. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.