The tabloid newspapers and bloggers like nothing more than a messy fight involving a wealthy family.
The 2009 trial of Anthony Marshall, the son of Brooke Astor, heiress to much of the Astor fortune, was daily fodder for New York papers.
Mr. Marshall was accused of forging his centenarian mother's signature on a document that allowed him, as her guardian, to invest her money as he wanted. Mrs. Astor, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, was forced to live in squalor without adequate clothing or care, according to testimony at Mr. Marshall's trial. He was convicted of grand larceny and other charges.
The highly publicized fight is an example of a nationwide epidemic of elder abuse, said Cameron DeGuerre, an attorney at Peck Bloom LLC.
Ms. DeGuerre, who focuses on trust and probate litigation, gave advisers at the NAPFA conference an overview of the problem.
Every year, between 500,000 and 5 million elders are abused, neglected or exploited.
The estimated range of such crimes is wide because the abuse is hard to define, and in many cases, it goes unreported, Ms. DeGuerre said.
“In many cases, [elders] may depend on the abuser and fear reprisals from them. They may be afraid of being placed in a nursing home or dread the stigma of domestic violence,” Ms. DeGuerre said.
Indeed, in 78% of elder-abuse cases, the abuser is a spouse, a child or other relative of the individual, according to 2010 statistics from the Illinois Department on Aging. Mickey Rooney, for example, said that he had food and water withheld from him by his stepson, who allegedly stole more than $400,000 from the actor. The actor has been granted a restraining order against the stepson.
Financial exploitation is the most-often-reported type of abuse (58%) and is often linked to emotional abuse. In many cases, the abuse is committed by a family member attempting to get control of an older person's funds.
“If a family member takes offense at not being appointed guardian or being given power of attorney, beware,” Ms. DeGuerre said.
For financial advisers who suspect that a client is losing their capacity to make decisions, they should communicate their concerns to family members and/or friends of the individual, as well as legal representatives, Ms. DeGuerre said.
If they suspect that abuse is occurring, the situation can be doubly frustrating, as action on their part could result in their dismissal by a family member or guardian.