Recently, a senior friend told me her Colorado doctor not only asked her if she had a will but asked for a copy of it. This friend was already skeptical of how doctors share immunization records with state government databases (CIIS) and state health information exchanges (CORHIO) for paid subscribers. She wisely did not provide a copy of her will. (The “P” in HIPAA stands for Portability, not Privacy). I informed her about the most profitable criminal scheme aimed at our elders that starts with doctors as screeners of valuable estates and then declaring the patient mentally incompetent and unable to manage his/her own estate. A doctor asking for a copy of a will is a red flag for exploitation of seniors.
This elder asset theft is best portrayed in the movie “I Care A Lot.” Although the movie is not a true story, it was based on actual criminal activity reported in the news. The scheme involves a network of organized crime posing as helpful, caring people. First, a doctor screens patients for considerable estates and usually targets seniors without a spouse or adult children and declares the wealthy patient mentally incompetent. Next, the doctor refers the patient’s file to a professional guardian, without the patient’s consent or knowledge. The guardian convinces a colluding judge to appoint him or her as the legal guardian, then relocates the patient to a long-term care facility, and swiftly sells off the possessions of the patient to pay for the facility fees and the guardian’s “services.” Lastly, an administrator at the long-term care facility works in collusion to drug the uncooperative patient and limit the patient’s communications and visitors. The patient is robbed of both wealth and autonomy, without access to money and without choices in medical care. The guardian makes all decisions for the ward, without any disclosures to the family, while racketeering with the others in the network.
One estimate reports that over $273 billion in assets are controlled by guardians in the United States.
The Victims and the Guardians
Esquire reported on one real-life guardianship victim and how it is worse than prison:
In a report on legal guardianship by The New York Times, Phyllis Funke, a 77-year-old retired journalist with a master’s degree, a pilot’s license, and several hundred thousand dollars in investments, spoke about how desolate her life became after being declared an “incapacitated person” by the state of New York.
“I’ve been bullied, blackmailed and stripped of the things I need to live, including my money,” Funke said. “Everything has been taken away from me. I have no access to my bank accounts. I don’t have the money to pay for the medications that I’m prescribed. I don’t get mail. I can’t choose my own doctors.”
Funke went on to compare her situation to incarceration, though she then walked that statement back, saying, “It’s worse than incarceration. At least in prison you have rights.”
Professional guardians are only required to attend a one-day certification, which does not include a background check. These guardians will liquidate the assets of the patient as quickly as possible in over-priced care and while billing hourly service fees for hundreds of dollars, and later relocate the patient to low quality nursing homes with government funds when the patient’s assets are drained. The guardians also bill the patient for the legal fees.
In 2018, April Parks of Nevada was charged and later convicted of elder exploitation as a guardian for 400 wards. A county guardian commissioner awarded Parks a ward on average once a week for years, and a judge consistently disqualified family members as guardians with unsubstantiated accusations of being unsuitable, neglectful, drug addicts, gamblers, and exploiters.
The laws in Nevada allowed any professionally licensed guardian to file an Ex Parte motion for temporary guardianship, meaning they did not even have to serve their motion on the adult they wished to be guardian over, nor their family. All that was needed was verification from a physician that the proposed ward was mentally or physically incapable of handling their affairs.
What Ms. Parks had going was a Physicians Assistant who would sign off on reports saying the elderly person was incompetent and not well enough to even appear at the hearing. Then, the motion would claim the elderly person’s family was either out of state or incompetent to serve due to drug/alcohol problems.
So, she’d get appointed as a temporary guardian. Then she’d move the person to an assisted living facility, where they’d be heavily medicated.
After this, Ms. Parks would apply for full guardianship, knowing the court had a distrust of family members serving as guardians and taking their parents’ money. Then, ironically, she’d drain their bank accounts to pay her crazy invoices, often billing for 25 hours of services in 1 day. She’d sell their property and generally ruin them.
If you are over 60, read the full-length article “How the Elderly Lose their Rights” with details from the victims and their families on how April Parks, a judge, and medical professionals ran this guardian fraud operation. To add insult to injury, family members who were justifiable outraged were accused of being unstable, and removed from court rooms, and sometimes arrested for trespassing at senior care facilities where their parents were held against their will.
Ways to Prevent Guardianship Fraud
- Don’t disclose. Medical personnel and social workers at hospitals and rehabilitation centers were the main source of leads to screen seniors for having a large estate and if the senior had in-state relatives who would intervene. Be guarded about “small talk” about your assets and relatives with seemingly caring people at routine medical appointments. It is best to convey that you have nothing of value but your large extended and involved family!
- Don’t go alone. The guardians use bully tactics to convince seniors to leave their homes quickly without even a phone call to a friend or relative. The guardian presents a court order, alleges that refusal to cooperate will result in the police coming to arrest them, and gives the false assurance that any misunderstanding will be quickly resolved. In reality, many of the victims were in facilities for 18 months or more. Many victims in facilities died of despair and being over medicated. Do not leave your home out of compliance. Call a relative, friend, attorney, or trusted doctor who can validate your competence. This might be enough deterrent for the perpetrator to move on to find an easier target with less resistance.
- Don’t let the court decide who represents you. It often takes days for relatives to realize that their parents have been medically kidnapped. When relatives try to become guardians in court, a corrupt judge will dismiss them with false allegations. Family members who live out of state are often disqualified from serving as guardians. The best defense is to appoint a trusted family member as a guardian or medical power of attorney in the event you are incapacitated BEFORE an opportunist guardian requests a court ordered appointment.
Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship have identified “hot spots” or cities where guardianship abuse is prevalent with a high number of retirees: Palm Beach, Sarasota, Naples, Albuquerque, and San Antonio. But right here in Colorado, we also have doctors requesting copies of wills. Every senior group should be discussing this fraud and how to implement safeguards.