My goal in this blog post is to discuss character traits of elder abusers so that you can recognize them and hopefully protect yourself, your family, and your friends. I’ve handled over 100 estate disputes, and in a sizeable number of those cases, elder abusers committed an array of unethical actions including isolating, threatening, and pressuring elderly people to change their estate plans.
I previously wrote a lengthy blog post that discussed the signs of undue influence of elders. That blog post can be found by clicking here. By contrast, this blog post focuses on the character traits of elder abusers.
A Public Record of Prior Bad Actions
There’s a reason for the saying “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” That’s because the saying has proven true over and over again. In many of the estate disputes that I’ve litigated that involve elder abusers, there is a paper trail of prior bad acts by the elder abusers. Often, this paper trail is easily available on the internet. I’ve handled cases involving disgraced medical professionals and lawyers who were disciplined or who lost licenses (facts that were available on the internet), involving convicted felons (often there were articles about the convictions on the internet), and involving businessmen caught up in shady schemes (often there were articles about those schemes on the internet). In all of those cases, a family member or friend who spent about 15 minutes doing a basic internet search could have learned about the prior misconduct. The moral of the story is that if you have an elderly family member or friend who is getting caught up with what you believe is a person of questionable character, spend the time looking up that person on the internet and you might be surprised at what you find.
A Lengthy Prior History of Litigation
Frequently, elder abusers have been involved in prior lawsuits, including those relating to previous elders they may have abused. I’d say that in over half of the elder abuse cases that I’ve handled, we’ve been able to confirm that the abuser tried to prey upon a prior victim too. In Virginia, a person can search the circuit court case information system (link is available here) and the general district court information system (link is available here) to try to ascertain whether a person has previously been sued. My only caution is that it’s not necessarily unusual for the average person to end up in a lawsuit for an entirely innocuous reason (such as a car accident, a trip and fall, etc.). And if someone is a small business owner, the volume of litigation may be even higher, without that being probative of unethical conduct. That said, if you spot a sizeable number of prior lawsuits, exercise caution.
Odd Money Habits
All adults should have in place a financial power of attorney, in which they name an agent as the person to make financial decisions for them and to manage their finances in the event of their incapacity. Relatives and friends should be wary of anyone who does not manage an elderly person’s money in an open and transparent manner, investing in a diversified portfolio with a risk allocation that is appropriate for an elderly person’s age and life situation.
In my experience, I’ve observed that many elder abusers have a history of bizarre financial decisions and money habits. Some examples include: investing in odd, opaque, or risky funds; serving as the “investment advisor” himself (rather than retaining an independent investment advisor); investing the money in an “investment club” run by “a friend”; buying large amounts of gold; buying large amounts of bitcoin; exchanging large sums of money into a foreign currency; hoarding cash; investing in “rare art”; excessive investments in emerging markets (sometimes the market is even left unspecified); etc.
One big mistake that I see people make is assuming that because a person is neither poor nor uneducated, he can’t be an elder abuser. Nothing could be further from the truth. Frequently, elder abusers are educated, at least partially well-off, and socially sophisticated. This is what differentiates them from common pick-pocket thieves. There is often no rational financial motive for elder abuse. Rather, elder abusers are fundamentally immoral and unethical. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that someone wouldn’t abuse you or your family or friends because “it wouldn’t make sense for such a nice, well off person to do that.” It usually doesn’t make sense; that’s what makes it so twisted.
An Insular Social Circle or Work Environment
Most of the elder abusers that I’ve dealt with in my cases had a rather small circle of friends, a rather limited social network, and a very insular work environment (if they were even working at all).
The reason for this may pose the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: do abusers not have large social networks because people have realized they’re creeps (and therefore don’t want to associate with them) or is it because the abusers don’t seek out the company of others? In any event, I have never seen an elder abuser who was the PTA President, a member of City Council, or a high-level executive at a reputable company. Instead, they tend to be retired persons, homemakers, owners of their own businesses, contractors, etc. They tend to have a very small circle of friends. They also tend not to be extensively involved in social organizations that would bring them into contact with large numbers of people.
While much of what I’ve discussed above may seem to be, on one level, intuitive, the fact is that many Americans are socialized to believe the best about people, and therefore often have a hard time coming to grips with the reality that another human being means their relative or friend harm. The point that I hope you take away from this blog post is to trust your instincts, and if you suspect that something “just doesn’t seem right”, please take action and consult with your locality’s social services department, and depending upon the severity of the situation, legal counsel.