William J. Hennessy Jr.
A generous kin or addled aunt?
The situation: For more than 30 years, 84-year-old Genyte Dirse owned and operated a small beachside motel next door to the triplex apartments she owned in St. Pete Beach, Florida. Gedi, her great-nephew, had lived with her temporarily after coming to the U.S. 15 years earlier, at age 20, from their native Lithuania. In December 2017, Genyte sold one of the triplex buildings to Gedi for $50,000 — a fraction of its $250,000 market value. Real estate agent Diana Sames called foul. She said that Genyte's faculties were failing and that the great-nephew exploited his aunt during the sale.
The case: Sames petitioned a judge to put Genyte under the control of a guardian, testifying that Genyte was not thinking clearly. Gedi countered that the agent had showed little interest in his great-aunt until the property was transferred to his name. As for Genyte's capabilities, Gedi and tenants said she was doing just fine on her own and still managing to run the motel; Gedi was helping drive her to the grocery store, church and doctor appointments.
On April 18, 2018, a Florida judge declared Genyte Dirse incapacitated and appointed a professional guardian, Traci Samuel, to oversee her everyday and financial affairs. Samuel, who manages multiple guardianships, moved Genyte from her motel into an assisted living facility and forbade Gedi and other family members and friends to see her. Samuel also sued him, using Genyte’s money, to void the sale of the property. Gedi has been billed about $75,000 in attorney fees, he says.
The lesson: “Almost all guardianships are avoidable with advance planning,” says Syracuse University law professor Nina A. Kohn, a guardianship expert. “If you execute powers of attorney for your health care and finances, even if you lose your ability to make decisions yourself, a court appointment will very rarely be necessary.” Adds Diana Noel, AARP senior legislative representative: “Most states continue to improve adult-guardianship laws to prevent abusive situations, and many seek to meet an individual’s needs with less restrictive alternatives, when appropriate, so the adult can retain authority to make decisions.”
The Next Case:
Real love or elder abuse?
The situation: In the fall of 2015, an octogenarian gentleman from Virginia (let’s call him G.K.) met a much younger woman (M.C.) and, soon enough, they were married. The groom doted on M.C. and began lavishing gifts upon her — a late-model Jaguar, real estate, thousands of dollars to pay off M.C.’s bills. But there was trouble in paradise. Within a year, it became clear that M.C. was funneling some of the riches to a boyfriend.
The case: G.K. clearly trusted and felt great fondness for his new bride. The court documents show that he cosigned a loan application and made a $2,500 down payment on M.C.’s fancy car. He also obtained a $50,000 mortgage to help erase M.C.’s debts. To pay off his mounting bills, G.K. took out another $105,000 loan a month later. G.K., by all appearances, was putting his money where his heart was. But the feds saw a sham marriage that exploited an aging man’s diminished mental capacity, and they went after the behind-the-scenes boyfriend for mail fraud and forfeiture of any property or goods derived illicitly.
On April 18, 2019, Virginia Beach resident John Michael Gatchell, 55, pleaded guilty in federal court to defrauding the unnamed elderly victim of nearly $157,000. Gatchell and his longtime girlfriend, who wasn’t named as she wasn’t charged with a crime, arranged the marriage as a way to prey on the victim’s wealth and failing faculties. Although G.K. believed he was signing the car loan to take possession of the Jaguar himself, Gatchell ended up driving it for 10 months, until the vehicle was repossessed for missed loan payments. Much of the money diverted from loan proceeds went to Gatchell for luxury indulgences, including $7,500 to purchase box seats from Live Nation for a concert series. When he needed more cash, Gatchell would induce his girlfriend’s husband to sell property, with most of the funds going to Gatchell. Fortunately, a close relative of the victim spotted trouble and called the FBI. With his guilty plea, Gatchell was sentenced to 6 years in prison.
The lesson: Whether it’s you or an aging family member, “pay attention to the sudden appearance of ‘uninvolved others,’ people with no prior relationship who ingratiate themselves and trigger new spending habits, bank withdrawals or other disappearances of funds,” says Kaitlin G. Cooke, the assistant U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted the case. “It could be a complete stranger or someone like a hairdresser or tax preparer suddenly taking a larger role in an older person’s financial life. It’s often a red flag.”
How to Combat Elder Abuse
Putting an end to elder abuse starts with recognizing the problem. If you believe you or a loved one is the victim of a scam, fraud, neglect, exploitation or other abuse, here’s what to do:
Most crimes against older Americans involve someone the victim trusts, family members included. So stay vigilant even when all seems normal. Be involved and engaged with your finances, and stay alert to unauthorized ATM withdrawals, financial requests from ingratiating outsiders or anything that feels unsafe, uninvited or ethically questionable.
A classic scam begins with someone rushing you. Nothing is urgent. If anyone claiming to be a law enforcement officer calls to demand immediate payment for failure to show up for jury duty, for instance, hang up and take the time to verify and do research. You can always call back on an official number.
Services offered through cold calls or door-knocking solicitors are often fraudulent. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s almost always a scam.
Ten percent of Americans age 60-plus are victims of elder abuse or fraud. If you’ve been hurt, scammed or exploited, you’re in the company of millions. Try to let go of the shame, self-blame and fear of retaliation, and notify local or federal authorities. The Elder Justice Initiative (justice.gov/ElderJustice) shows you how to find help in your area or report abuse.
The National Center on Elder Abuse (ncea.acl.gov) offers links to many resources and describes common scenarios. Get help in your area from adult protective services. Additional information is available through the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (ncall.us). If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, go to the National Network to End Domestic Violence website (nnedv.org) to find information and learn about resources. Finally, for more on scams and how to avoid getting caught up in one, go to aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork.
The Next Case: