Elder fraud or elder abuse? Godson worries his family is trying to steal his godfather’s money

Q: I’m wondering if someone is trying to steal my godfather’s money. It could be a case of elder fraud or elder abuse.

Here’s what’s happening: My godfather was put into assisted living by his family. He has a very slight case of dementia. His sister wants his assets. He owns his home and several cars.

But then he was sent to the hospital because of swelling and water retention. My godfather was supposed to come home, and a social worker was to follow and help him. Instead, he was sent to his cousin’s assisted living facility. He had no idea, and had no one’s name or number and didn’t have his name on anything.

What happens to his money if he dies? Do all of his belongings go to the state? The family is trying to get conservatorship or guardianship over him. His sister obtained one lawyer and his nephew obtained another. Everyone is at war and no one seems to be helping him.

What can I do to help him?

Elder abuse can happen to anyone, even without dementia

A: We’re sorry your godfather isn’t well and is going through these issues. We understand your concern for his well-being. And, we’re sure he’d appreciate it. Two thoughts come to mind when it comes to your question about how to help him. 

What is elder fraud?

Let’s start with some definitions:

Elder Fraud are scams that target elderly people. They may involve financial or romance scams. In 2018, more than $184 million was lost to elder financial fraud and romance scams. The federal government created a national elder fraud hotline that you can call if you suspect a loved one has been a victim. (833) FRAUD-11 (833) 372-8311.

What is elder abuse?

Elder Abuse occurs when an older person is being physically, sexually, emotionally, psychologically, or financially abused by someone who is in a trusted position. That person is usually a caregiver. It might also include neglect or abandonment by caregivers, or healthcare fraud or abuse. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), emotional abuse is the most common form of elder abuse. 

Having dementia can up the odds of elder fraud or elder abuse

Just because you have a mild case of dementia doesn’t mean your brain power only goes in one direction. When you have a slight or mild dementia, you may be more coherent at certain times (of the day or year) than others. You might also be more cognitively “with it” with some people rather than others.

Having a “slight case of dementia,” as you put it doesn’t mean his health issues aren’t complex or serious. While you may perceive the issue as minor, you may not realize that his situation is much worse than you think if you have only seen him infrequently. But let’s say these memory issues don’t rise to the level where your Godfather needs constant care or is unable to take care of himself. He may need some care from family (or others) from time to time, but for the most part, he can competently take care of himself. He can be relied on to take his medication and communicate with his family.

But if the situation is worse than you think, his family may be dealing with a huge problem. Their father may have never put his affairs in order. And, the family now needs to figure out how to care for and pay for their father who now has memory issues. Memory care is quite expensive.

If the elder is mentally competent, but controlled, it could be a case of elder abuse

We obviously can’t know what the actual circumstances are or how your Godfather is doing. But if you’re trying to help, make sure your godfather is in a good place and is well taken care of. When you visit, see if he seems with it and capable of living independently. Talk to his caregivers and see how he is doing.

If he seems coherent and able to manage his own life, then it’s possible he is the victim of elder abuse and elder financial fraud. If you truly suspect he is a victim and believe his kids are taking advantage of him, you can report them to the authorities. However, as we mentioned, you should only do that if you know that they are abusing him. The authorities can then make the decision as to whether there is a case or not.

Protect assets from elder abuse with a will, powers of attorney, a trust, and even a guardian

When it comes to your godfather’s assets, you mentioned that he owns all of his assets in his name and did not sign any documentation relating to his assets. So, from this point of view, he still owns his home, cars and all of his other assets. If his kids are successful in having a court appoint a guardian of his estate, that guardian will need to use his assets for your godfather’s benefit. The guardian will need to account for their actions with the court including showing to the court how much of his money has been spent and what bills have been paid.

The guardian will need to pay the real estate taxes, homeowner’s insurance and other expenses of his home. However, if there is no possibility that he can return to live in the home, the guardian can move to sell his cars and home and use those funds to pay for his expenses of living in the memory care facility.

Adult children typically act as guardians for mentally or physically diminished parents

We assume that the court will likely name one of your Godfather’s children as the guardian. If there are no children, it may be that his sister will be named guardian. If that guardian uses funds from your godfather’s estate for their personal use, the guardian can get in trouble with the court, if and when the court finds out about the misuse of funds.

Let’s assume that your godfather’s problems are more severe than you know. And the guardian needs money to pay your Godfather’s bills. The next step is to sell the home and cars. The money from the sale would flow into your godfather’s estate and the guardian will use those funds for your godfather’s care and any other expenses he might need.

Who will inherit the estate?

If your Godfather should die intestate, that is, without a will, then the courts will step in to name the heirs. Typically, children and parents would split the inheritance, followed by siblings and other heirs. Since he has no children, his sister and nephew would likely split whatever money and property he leaves behind.

Assuming he lives for a while, two attorneys are already involved. That leads us to believe his sister and nephew aren’t on the same page on this issue. It’s hard for us to recommend that you do anything under these circumstances unless you want to become involved and potentially end up fighting with these relatives and their lawyers. You’ll need to weigh the benefits of helping out, with the information you know, how much time you want to take to see this through, and how much money you might need to spend to do what you think may be right.

In the end, however, courts generally turn to the closest relatives (children, siblings or parents) to assume guardianship. These are the people who will make the decisions about your Godfather. They might be good decisions, or bad. But unless you’ve got proof that his sister is trying to steal his money, you may have to take a step back and focus on providing your Godfather with unlimited emotional support as he goes on this journey.

If you’re concerned about elder fraud or elder abuse, you can visit the website for the Office for Victims of Crime. There is a specific page for Elder Fraud and Abuse.

Read more about Elder Fraud and Elder Abuse:

What if I have no heirs? 

How Can You Find Out If You Are Listed On A Trust?