Shay Jacobson, RN, MA, NMG, LNCC, CNLCP Martha Kern


Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

But what about cases where the plan is carefully developed, well managed, and equipped with safeguards to prevent derailment? We like to believe our best-laid plans culminate in happy outcomes, and often, they do.

Any plan can and will fail, however, particularly when vulnerability intersects with exploitation.

Caution: When an individual is vulnerable, “casual care” can lead to disastrous results. “Casual care” refers to the complex web of neighbors, acquaintances, service providers and others who occupy the periphery of a client’s life and then gradually or suddenly find a pivotal role for themselves in the care and oversight of a vulnerable person. They appear well meaning. They seem sincere and good-hearted. They offer to help….and help and help. If they charge for their services at all, their fees are well below industry standards. The informality of the arrangement feels familial and warm, and it’s hard to argue against nice, friendly helpers who charge next to nothing and take care of everything.

Our client, who we’ll call Mrs. Weiss, was in the contented throes of a “casual care” relationship when we met her. Mrs. Weiss was a well-known and highly respected professor and had been married to an equally renowned professional for many years. She and her husband did well in life, and Mrs. Weiss was also the beneficiary of a family interest in the oil industry. Her assets hovered in the area of $35 million.

Mrs. Weiss and her husband had established a solid estate plan 20 years earlier. Their funds were well-tended and well-invested. There were multiple trusts, financial advisors, IRAs, insurance policies – it was a nicely crafted plan by any standard. But when Mr. Weiss died, the world spun in an unexpected orbit.

A Loss, and then Deductions
Mrs. Weiss, though quite brilliant in her areas of scholarship, had never been one to crunch or understand numbers. Tracking the family expenditures, keeping the checkbook, managing changes in investments were all jobs her husband performed and which Mrs. Weiss avoided. Tackling this unknown and unsavory job at the age of 84 was not an appealing proposition for Mrs. Weiss.

Compounding her lack of interest in a new job as money manager was Mrs. Weiss’ situational depression following her husband’s unexpected death, and the mild dementia she was likely hoping no one noticed over the past couple of years. That dementia was an obstacle to the development of new skills. Even if she had an interest in juggling the details of her 35 million dollar estate, her dementia would have precluded the acquisition of these new skills.

But not to worry. Mrs. Weiss’ team included a number of financial professionals so she could relax and assume they were managing her estate with her best interests at heart. Sadly, it was one of her financial representatives who let her down first. His fees for managing her IRAs had, on average, run about $7,000 annually before Mr. Weiss died.

In the first year after Mr. Weiss’ death, those fees spiked to a shocking $200,000. While it’s entirely possible there was a bit of extra management needed in those post-mortem months, an increase of this magnitude is strongly suggestive of opportunism. Mrs. Weiss’ ability to recognize the irregularity of a staggering fee hike was clouded by her depression and blossoming dementia.

A New Best Friend
The next person to see the glow of illicit opportunity in Mrs. Weiss’ situation was the relative of a neighbor. She was in the area just enough, and had heard just enough, to understand that a lonely, grieving, and slightly demented woman with a great deal of money might appreciate some company. She might even appreciate it so much she would pay for it. Maybe she would even add her to the will!

The neighbor’s relative started popping by quite often to see Mrs. Weiss. She had never really had anything to do with her in the past but, clearly, things had changed.

Now, she was playing the role of a close and dear friend (known in today’s parlance as a BFF – “best friend forever”) whose every moment was consumed with the comfort and wellbeing of Mrs. Weiss.

The new “BFF”, who we’ll call Bonnie, ingratiated herself initially by offering to cut the grass and shop for groceries. There were probably a lot of lingering conversations over coffee as groceries were dropped off and the garden was tended, and Mrs. Weiss quickly warmed to the idea of having a steady someone fussing over her with great regularity. A dependent role was both comfortable and familiar to Mrs. Weiss, and she was happy to slip back into the help-me-with-everything lifestyle her husband’s death had disrupted.

Bonnie’s next offer involved all that pesky money and property management. She put her name on a $400,000 bank account as co-owner with Mrs. Weiss. She became Power of Attorney. Long-standing relationships with financial professionals and institutions were systematically terminated which was, in the end, Bonnie’s undoing.

The trust officers who had dutifully and honorably served Mrs. Weiss for 20 years would not merely stand by and allow this new best friend to unravel Mrs. Weiss’ estate plan. They decided to stop Bonnie by pursuing guardianship.

Bon Voyage, Bonnie
The long-time trust officers brought the matter to the guardianship court for assessment of Mrs. Weiss’ competencies and protection of her person and assets. This proved an effective strategy. Mrs. Weiss went through a battery of tests and was diagnosed with moderate dementia and depression. It was determined that she was not able to manage her finances but should participate in her personal life choices. A third party guardian was appointed to sort out the web of intrigue that surrounded this gentle woman.

The guardian sifted through the rubble of Bonnie’s activities. The $400,000 bank account that she put her name on as co-owner was returned to its prior sole owner, Mrs. Weiss. The new will Bonnie had orchestrated, and the relocation of the trusts to new financial institutions, was determined by the court to have been done after Mrs. Weiss’ testamentary capacity had waned. The original plan was thus honored. Mrs. Weiss was provided professional caregivers that came from a licensed, bonded and insured agency. The $10,000 a month that was being sent to Mrs. Weiss’ niece was discontinued; Mrs. Weiss was sure she was sending just $100 each month, and Bonnie did nothing to correct this impression. She was hoping to ingratiate herself with the relatives, too, and a nice check can go a long way in accelerating friendship. Bonnie was filling out the checks and all Mrs. Weiss had to do was trust her and sign her name.

Mrs. Weiss now lives in her home with a 24-hour caregiver. She travels weekly to the university where she once worked to attend lectures and remain a part of the professional community that was her family. The guardian serves as insulation from professional opportunists that recognize her vulnerability. Without the protection of a guardian, her world would predictably remain in a helter-skelter pattern and the financial investments would fill the pockets of the circling schemers who prey on the vulnerable.

Guardianship is designed to protect those who are overwhelmed due to age-related frailties, disabilities, or injuries. The goal is to maximize independence but also to protect and proactively prevent exploitation. Mrs. Weiss is living in the community, using her resources to enhance her person-centered care plan as she ages in place – safely.

Now that the era of “casual care” has ended, Mrs. Weiss is thriving in a structured setting and her plan, as designed by she and her husband, is back on track. © Lifecare Innovations, Inc.