Thrifty Elders
How Long Do You Want to Live?

The Elder Guardianship Scam

A few days ago, TGB reader Kate Gilpin sent me an email about what she calls her “latest ageism tale from the trenches.”

”Yesterday I had lunch with three wonderful, smart, interesting, funny women,” she writes. “I was the youngest there, at 80, and two of them were over 90. We all live independently and quite competently, thank you.

“One of us told a story of her experience considering whether or not to have some solar panels put on her roof. She talked to a consultant - I don't know if this was on the phone or if the consultant came to the house (they usually do).

“After some discussion of what was available, what required, etc., the consultant announced to my friend that in order to sign a contract with them, she would need to have a younger family member present in the room to endorse the proceedings.

“No, really. They wouldn't accept her own responsibility. She thanked them immediately for their time and terminated the consultation.

“I was shocked at this report and asked among my friends of various ages for their reactions to this incident. I got an unsurprising number of replies expressing dismay.”

Dismay? Try loathsome. Offensive. Disgusting,

Nevertheless, this story is only a mild version of what can happen just about anywhere in the United States: that someone you've never met nor heard of arrives at your home unannounced waving a Family Court “removal order” that gives him or her “guardianship” over your entire life from that moment forward.

The “guardian” then orders you to leave you home immediately, drops you (and your spouse if you have one) off at an assisted living facility and then steals all your worldly goods and money.

I first read of this horrible racket in a stunning article in The New Yorker last October reported by the estimable Rachel Aviv. As she recounts it in her piece, titled “How the Elderly Lose their Rights,” Rudy and Rennie North were ordered out of their home in Las Vegas by April Parks, owner of a company called A Private Professional Guardian:

”'Go and gather your things,' she said.

“Rennie began crying. 'This is my home,' she said.

“One of Parks' colleagues said that if the Norths didn't comply he would call the police. Rudy remembers thinking, You're going to put my wife and me in jail for this? But he felt too confused to argue...

“Rudy and Rennie had not undergone any cognitive assessments. They had never received a diagnosis of dementia.”

And that is only the beginning of the ordeal they suffered over the next two years that included being drugged at the assisted living home, depriving the North's adult daughter of information about their whereabouts or their medical condition and refusing to allow the daughter to visit her parents.

There is not a word in this long New Yorker story that is not important or worth reading and if you have access to the magazine's archives, you can read it here.

If not, fortunately for us, all elders and their families, last Sunday John Oliver devoted the largest part of his HBO program, Last Week Tonight, to the story of Rudy and Rennie North and the nightmare of unregulated, unsupervised state guardianship programs.

Here is Oliver's report with the accompaniment of an all-star team of elder celebrities: William Shatner, Rita Moreno, Fred Willard, Cloris Leachman, and Lily Tomlin:

Even with all they suffered, Roy and Rennie North are, to a degree, lucky - they eventually got out of their forced incarceration; others taken from their homes against their will died before anything could be done to help them.

The North's home, money and belongings are gone now and they live with their daughter who will support them for the rest of their lives.

”Parks spent all the Norths' money on fees – the hourly wages for her, her assistants, her lawyers, and the various contractors she hired – as well as on their monthly bills, which doubled under her guardianship.”

What happened to Roy and Rennie and so many others is a form of elder abuse. Numbers are elusive but it is estimated that 10 percent of people 65 and older are abuse victims - from strangers such as April Parks and, too often, from family members.

One way to help protect yourself or loved ones from such predatory “guardians” is to have all the appropriate health and end-of-life documents in order. These include your will, an advance directive, durable power of attorney, health care proxy, your state's POLST (Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment – called a MOLST is some states) and others.

An elderlaw attorney is a great help and there is a lot of useful information online to help you understand these documents.

When your documents are in order, keep copies in a safe place in your home (my elderlaw attorney suggested the freezer and so they sit, in a sealed plastic envelope). Be sure the people named in the documents – heirs, relatives, proxies, etc. - have copies and that your physicians have copies of what they need too.

After a lot of work from concerned people, Nevada has begun reforming its guardianship system and April Parks, along with her lawyer, office manager and husband, were indicted for perjury and theft, among other charges.

Richard Black, who is the son-in-law of another elder victim of this kind of scam in the Las Vegas area, is director of a national grassroots organization, Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship. He, reports Aviv, considers the Parks indictment “irrefutably shallow.”

”'It sends a strong message of: We're not going to go after the real leaders of this, only the easy prople, the ones who were arrogant and stupid enough to get caught,” he said.

“He works with victims in dozens of what he calls 'hot spots', writes Aviv, “places where guardianship abuse is prevalent, often because they attract retirees: Palm Beach, Sarasota, Naples, Albuquerque, San Antonio.

“[Black] said that the problems in Clark County [Nevada] are not unusual. 'The only thing that is unique is that Clark County is one of the few jurisdictions that doesn't seal its records, so we can see what is going on.'”

This kind of thing begins in small ways and grows. If it is all right for a random sales person to refuse selling a service to anyone he alone decides is incapable of making a decision about solar panels, it lays the groundwork for worse abuses of elders.



Comments

I saw this episode of John Oliver and was appalled -- how could anyone not be? I was aware of offices of guardianship and advocacy offices around the country, generally under the auspices of states, but had no idea how easily such offices could be established to prey on people.

Relative to your last blog topic, I suppose I can take small comfort in the fact that another way to stay out of the grip of people like this is not having enough resources to attract them. I think I'd rather live my life as a bag lady than to become entangled in a web woven by "people" like April Parks.

Maybe I am missing something, but I think that the solar consultant was correct. He (she) was ensuring that someone related to the owner was present before signing the contract. This has nothing to do with the competence of the homeowner. It is the consultant making sure that the relatives of the homeowner know what is going on so that they have no grounds for suing the consultant later for taking advantage of an older person.

Geordie...
Like you, maybe I'm missing something: how is it you assume any given old person is incompetent to make a purchase? And at what age does that kick in, in your estimation? I'm 77 years old. Should I denied the right to purchase something?

Well, Geordie:
I've had someone refuse me service (and I was in my 50s) unless my husband signed off on the contract. (By the way, I've never been married!)

And the same things happened to someone I know who wanted to test drive a car. She was told her husband had to come in to test drive it. She wasn't married at the time either.

Just sayin'

This has been going on for quite some time now. Several years ago ... I think I was in my 50s ... I was buying a new car when the salesman asked me if my husband could come in and sign the purchase papers! As I was divorced with no husband, he then asked if I had a son who could sign! I informed that young male that my son was in college and I was his sole support! I promptly got up and left that car dealership and never went back.

I am just guessing, but if the elder was unable to pay cash the salesman may have tried to make sure there was someone to keep paying on the contract in the event the elder did not live long enough to finish paying on something that could not be repossessed.

I am not justifying the requirement. I agree that it's insulting, but from a business standpoint it make sense if the person is over 90. The odds of the elder being able to still make payments for 20 years are not good. The optimal word is "younger" . (Is optimal the correct word? I can't find it in my dictionary so am relying on a very faulty memory.)

I realize that the salesman did not say a younger person had to add his/her signature to the contract so my argument falls apart, but I am posting it as an illustration of an explanation that not all such requests are an example of ageism, but of the reality when the actuary data is taken into account.

I just decimated my meager savings by having to replace my heat pump and I had trouble hearing the consultant so I had my daughter present to act as an interpreter. Without her help I would not have known the ramifications of my hefty purchase. I know that my capabilities to process a lot of information and retain the data has deteriorated. Even though I am not suffering from dementia yet (so they tell me), yet my mind has become slow just like the rest of my body, There are times when we must recognize our limitations

It was not until 1974 that women were allowed to have a credit card in their own name. Is it the contention of some, nearly 50 years later, that all old people should be thusly penalized in their purchases? Oh, and what purchases would be subject to a child's approval? Solar panels? Cars? Groceries? Anything at all?

Saw this show and was horrified to say least, also glad this issue is being exposed.

Respect John Oliver for featuring this story.


---

Was at my friend's home a few months ago when two tall dudes wearing uniforms and holding clipboards walked up the street sizing up houses, pausing, ringing doorbells.

When they rang my friend's doorbell, I said "there is something weird about these guys."

My friend never whips open her door without knowing the bell ringer.

So when the dudes rang her bell, she spoke to them through the window.

"Hello."

"Dude - said " we need to inspect your heating system."

Just like that. As if it was their right to trespass into her home.

(What the H?)

O_O

Friend-

"Who are you working for?"

Dude- "The City of (Fake Name.")

Friend- "I don't need any heating inspection, and you have one minute to get off my property before I call the police."

The two men left. Casually, no fear.

Friend called the city of Fake Name and reported the incident.

City said it's not illegal for these heating sales people to ring doorbells, BUT once you let them into your house they high pressure you to change your entire heating system to something their crappy company sells.

Some seniors at The Ranch where I volunteer have been getting scam calls, threatening calls. It's beyond evil to frighten or prey on vulnerable seniors who already have health issues.

The library holds safety seminars a few times a year, where police come and explain all the ways people try to scam citizens.

This is an excellent topic.

Thank you, Ronni.

I'm a widow,75 and have been hiring roofers, painters and car buying, solo for many years. Never been asked if there's a man for an ok to do a deal. First off, my marital status has never been asked nor do I mention it. I act like an individual and potential consumer in any business deal. I also know and am aware of others experiences being different. Power on Ronni, I agree. Where would this discrimination begin and end. So far, not at my door.

Ronni, can you add a few words to your column, and the NY article, by stating how the
people sucked into the guardenship are targeted or identified? I couldn't tell from my reading where that first 'intruder' often came from.....a visiting nurse?.......a social worker making a home visit?........an unscrupulous elder-law attorney......a financial worker?........we could benefit by knowing in addition to all you (And Rachel) wrote. Thanks for everything you do!

Jan...
How targets are identified is complex but Rachel Aviv explains it in pretty good detail in her New Yorker story. However, that applies only to Clark County, Nevada where Rudy and Rennie North lived.

Such guardian laws/rules are local so one state cannot be compared necessarily to another. I'm sorry that I can't do anything about supplying the New Yorker story if you don't have a subscription. The archive is behind a paywall.

The trouble is that there are plenty of unscrupulous contractors out there who will talk an elderly homeowner into signing up for all sorts of overpriced, and unnecessary, home repairs and improvements. An honest contractor therefore has to worry about being accused of being one of these predators.

A family member may genuinely believe their elder relative was taken advantage of -- even if they weren't -- or (since families vary) they may be annoyed that what they view as their rightful inheritance is being frittered away. "Solar panels? What does Grandma want with spending all (my) money on those stupid ol' solar panels, at her age?"

Sure, I suppose there were more tactful ways for the contractor to find out if this was going to be a risk, and apparently he paid the penalty for tactlessness. He lost the sale. Maybe next time he will...

...well, what? How should a contractor protect himself against being taken to court by a younger family member?

The contractor was protecting himself from a possible lawsuit. If after the contract and work is done and the homeowner is unhappy, they can sue the contractor. Here in California if there are any damages to be paid, the contractor has to pay double the amount if the client is over the age of 65. This law is meant to help protect us seniors from unscrupulous sales people.

You have two very different situations going on here.

I can--somewhat--see both sides of this story. However, being of sound mind and entirely able to purchase/negotiate/contract for sales or services I may need, I would have done exactly what Kate G.'s friend did, except I don't think I'd have thanked them for their time. I might not even have been entirely civil as I let them out the door.

Whatever the reasoning, I find it insulting and downright scary that someone might conclude, especially without ever having met me, that I require a "guardian" or a co-signer (including my spouse) at 81 Y/O. I, too, clearly remember the days when a female could not open a checking account in her own name--even if SHE was the only one earning a paycheck at the time, as I was. Bah, humbug!

Creepy.....:(

Good information. Made me text my kids to find out if they still had the copies of my will etc. that I gave them some time ago.

Ronni, Re: "the New Yorker story" without a subscription.

Here in Portland, and likely in most public Libraries, if you have Library card you can access many magazines and read online. Multnomha County refers to the program as RBdigital Magazines.

''The New Yorker'' is listed here along with about 50 more in a variety of categories. I really like it, with no stacks of unread paid subscriptions gathering dust when the days get complicated as they can at 80 y/o. E-books, Audio books, and streaming HOOPLA movies are available also.
Thank you for this great information and food for thought once again.

Younger friend phoned me earlier enraged, having seen Oliver program on a delayed basis. Just now saw this post so sent her link cause you answer some questions we had. Charlene’s info really good to know!

Our town requires anyone going door-to-door must carry city license to do so — can’t claim “mgr has it for all of us. “. When they come to my door — have security screen that is locked, that allows me to see out but they can’t see in — I immediately ask for license, inform them of requirement and may or may not inform them I’m calling police as we are asked to do by our law enforcement. I report to non-emergency number their description, which way they headed when left my door. They send out police to check them out, but I never know what develops or see any encounters. Some innocents, just uninformed ambitious sales people, I’m told, just get educated with no fine — first time offense.

Have encountered car salesmen who didn’t take me as a serious prospective buyer when I was in my sixties — also true when a few years later I was actually purchasing and stated I was the purchaser though husband present. Husband got tired, so went to car. They ran after him like a bunch of silly schoolgirls annoying him — pretty much ignoring me. I left, too and we went elsewhere.

There are definitely, in my experience, some businessmen who react in ways with me as a woman, when giving cost estimates, differently than when I recall my husband and I together discussing job quotes, purchases. Always helps if I can drop some language and terminology that shows I have some knowledge of the specifics.

You may freely access that New Yorker article by deleting any New Yorker cookies in your browser.

1.) Figure out where in your browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, etc.) your cookies are stored. For instance, in Chrome, go here: chrome://settings/siteData
2.) Search for newyorker and remove all/clear all when prompted. No need to clear ALL cookies, just the ones labeled newyorker
3.) To read the article just click on the link Ronni provided

Thank you Ronnie for posting this -- I assume you subscribe to the New Yorker where this article came out quite a while back. The worst result as I recall were in a specific state, perhaps Nevada. The idea that any citizen has been subjected to this kind of state sponsored terrorism is abhorrent. You don't allow links, but I could give your readers the link to this article. But John Oliver shouldn't be the source of this kind of crucial information. He is basically a news/entertainer -- people should have better sources of information than him, but I have to say that before the now famous New Yorker article, who knew? The specific stories are horrific. Why don't you let a link in this unimaginable but all too real case?

I read that New Yorker article when it came out and it chilled my blood like no horror movie ever has. It interfered with my sleep. I talked about it to all my friends and family, including a close friend, an attorney, who was certain that I must be misunderstanding some key element because the reality is too impossible to believe. Thank you for broadening understanding of this despicable practice!

Dear Ronni, thank you for the information. I'm so pleased with myself that I went to a well-respected lawyer last year and did the will and other necessary papers for final care. Peace.

Cassandra...
I have not allowed links in comments for many years. I spend way too much time deleting spam links and I don't have time in my life to vet every link people might post. So no comments. (There is a link to the New Yorker story in my post above. Perhaps you missed it.)

Re Oliver not being a good source of information: his reports are better researched than many news organizations' reports whether print or online. Not to mention they are more in depth and detailed than news reports often are.

Nevada was the state Rachel Aviv chose to concentrate on in her New Yorker report and Oliver followed her lead. Many states' laws and regulations in regard to adult guardianship are as lax as Nevada's.

I'll admit...the article was too long for me to read. I have a problem with focus and overload. I'd really like a short precise way to avoid this.

I'm a widow, no children and own my home and have a will, health care proxy etc. if I need a new roof, I just call a company and they come and do it. How does this get into guardianship? What am I missing here?

I've never heard of this situation. How does someone get guardianship over you without your original consent? And how would some quardian firm even know you had dementia or felt you were unable to care for your self.

I need advice how to avoid this in a concise form.

There is unfortunately a senior newsletter that recently had an article on the best assisted living facilities across the U.S. One was in Las Vegas. I had read the NY article. It infuriated me. In NV, it's a racket to confiscate assets and enrich certain individuals. I would never live in NV.

I must sell my condo and move so how long I will live has been on my mind. I am hoping the next move will be my "forever home" but who knows? It's hard to plan 10 years ahead. I read "Pencil Me In" by a woman who moved 8 X after the age of 70. She is in her 90s and has been living in a retirement community in AZ for the last 14 or so years.

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