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License to Steal: When Power of Attorney Is Used to Abuse

In what has become the most infamous case of financial elder abuse in recent memory, authorities say New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor was swindled out of millions of dollars by her son.

Anthony Marshall, 84, was accused of abusing his power of attorney to defraud his mother in the years leading up to her death in 2007. The case is set to go to trial next month.

The high-profile case puts a public face on what experts say is a crime on the rise: financial exploitation of older adults by relatives and friends who were trusted enough to be given powers of attorney.

The power of attorney can be “a license to steal because it grants broad powers with little oversight,” says Naomi Karp, a strategic policy adviser at AARP.

State laws govern financial powers of attorney. However, a majority of states provide little, if any, protection against financial exploitation through the power of attorney, according to an AARP Public Policy Institute report released Dec. 4.

The report urged state lawmakers to adopt the Uniform Power of Attorney Act (UPOAA) to strengthen protections for people who designate their powers of attorney. The measure also would make those who violate their fiduciary responsibility liable for damages.

To date, only two states—New Mexico and Idaho—have adopted the UPOAA. The act is expected to be considered by 12 state legislatures in 2009, the report says.

Protecting older people against power of attorney abuses has become more important as the population ages and family members and others are entrusted with decision making.

“We have definitely seen an increase in the number of referred cases of exploitation, particularly those that deal with power of attorney documents,” says Art Mason, director of the elder abuse prevention program at Lifespan, a nonprofit in Rochester, N.Y., and president of the National Adult Protective Services Association. “The vast majority of cases involve someone in the family.”

The saga typically begins when an older adult, usually a woman whose husband handled the finances, becomes widowed and starts to fall behind on her bills. Often, an individual’s diminished mental capacity plays a role in the need for help from family or friends.

This creates the opportunity for someone in the family or a trusted friend to take advantage of a vulnerable person, “with no criminal consequences,” Mason says.

“For 10 years now, it’s been a battle to get legislation passed that would give law enforcement more opportunities to go after people criminally who abuse their power of attorney.”

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at AARP Bulletin Today.

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