Old, Infirm and at the Center of a Legal Struggle – NYTimes.com

Anna Mae Franklin fought her daughter over Ms. Franklin’s incapacitated brother, in background.


TWO years ago when Arthur Cropsey’s wife died, it became clear to his family that Mr. Cropsey, now 91, could no longer live on his own in his California home. So his sister, Anna Mae Franklin, 83, of Colonie, N.Y., and her daughter, Linda Lyons, 61, flew out to get Mr. Cropsey and bring him back to New York State.

Soon after came two frightening realizations, Ms. Franklin said. First, Mr. Cropsey was in much worse shape than she had imagined. He suffered from severe memory loss and mood swings. During much of the day he was disoriented and at night he would pace from room to room in her small trailer home.

Second, Ms. Franklin thought that Ms. Lyons, with the help of her boyfriend, David Watson, 43, a lawyer, had gained control of a good portion of Mr. Cropsey’s money, which totaled more than $2 million in cash and investments. It looked to Ms. Franklin as if the couple were spending Mr. Cropsey’s money on themselves.

She and her daughter fought bitterly and ended up in court, each side accusing the other of mishandling Mr. Cropsey’s affairs. Eventually the judge ruled against the daughter and her boyfriend.

“The court notes that the actions by Linda Lyons and David Watson are inappropriate, and demonstrate a distinct intent to take advantage of Mr. Cropsey,” Acting Justice Kimberly A. O’Connor wrote for the state Supreme Court, adding that the pair had treated his money as their own and “spent it in excessive ways that were often for their benefit.”

Sadly, such family conflicts commonly arise from caring for the elderly and often end up in court. In this case, the daughter still disputes the court’s ruling and much of her mother’s version of events. Mr. Watson declined to comment, and the couple’s lawyer did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In general, financial manipulation is one of the fastest-growing areas of elder abuse, said Bob Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition. It includes things like telephone investment swindles and caregivers, including family members, stealing money from vulnerable seniors.

The annual loss by elder financial abuse victims is close to $3 billion, according to a 2010 survey by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, a 12 percent increase from 2008. Thirty-four percent of that abuse is attributed to family, friends, neighbors and paid caregivers, according to the survey.

Those numbers don’t begin to reflect the actual incidence of abuse, said Sandra Timmermann, executive director of the institute. For every case that is reported, an estimated four or five are not, she said.

In Mr. Cropsey’s case, the court, having found him mentally incapacitated, decided to appoint an independent trustee as guardian of his finances, while keeping Ms. Franklin in charge of his care. Ms. Lyons and Mr. Watson returned close to $42,000 of Mr. Cropsey’s money, the ruling noted. He moved into an assisted-living facility.

As a story of family disunity amid the challenges of elder care, the case offers little uplift. The judge’s ruling, issued in October 2011, found that Mr. Watson had Mr. Cropsey sign documents to give Ms. Lyons power of attorney; Ms. Franklin previously had that power. And Mr. Watson had Mr. Cropsey sign a will leaving his entire estate to Ms. Lyons, according to the ruling. Mr. Cropsey did not have a will at the time, so under New York State law much of his estate would have gone to Ms. Franklin.

Justice O’Connor referred to that action as “egregious” given that Mr. Cropsey’s mental capacity was questionable and, referring to Mr. Watson, said that “the canons of ethics by which a lawyer must abide and conduct himself or herself require examination in this instance.”

Ms. Lyons declined to comment on Mr. Cropsey’s will, but did offer an account of her and Mr. Watson’s spending that differed from her mother’s.

According to Ms. Franklin, her daughter had offered to take care of her uncle’s bills once Mr. Cropsey moved. Ms. Franklin had set up an account for Mr. Cropsey at a local credit union. “Just put me on the account, Mom, so I can write a check if you aren’t around,” Ms. Franklin said her daughter told her at the time. “Or better yet, get me a debit card on the account.”

Exhausted from caring for Mr. Cropsey, Ms. Franklin readily agreed. “She’s my daughter — of course I trusted her,” she said.

When Ms. Franklin saw copies of the statements, however, there were charges that Mr. Cropsey could not have made, for restaurants, hotels and other expenses, she said.

“My mom knew ahead of time about all of those expenses,” Ms. Lyons said in response. Many were for a trip to California to pack and move Mr. Cropsey’s belongings, she explained. During that trip, Ms. Lyons and Mr. Watson stayed at a hotel and took family members out to dinner.

Ms. Lyons said that most of the money she returned was money that she and her mother had agreed that Ms. Lyons needed to spend to update a property that she owned where her mother and Mr. Cropsey could live.

Things began to deteriorate, said Ms. Lyons, when Ms. Franklin felt she could no longer care for her brother. “She wanted to rush and put him in a nursing home and take charge of his money,” Ms. Lyons said.

“I feel after what she did to me, she doesn’t deserve to be my mother,” Ms. Lyons said. “We did not steal Art’s money. This whole thing is geared more towards the money than caring or worrying about Art.”

Ms. Franklin hasn’t talked to Ms. Lyons since the hearing.

“I’ve lost a daughter,” she said, breaking into tears.

What can others do to prevent such situations?

“It’s important that seniors and their loved ones know what to look for,” said Georgia Anetzberger, president of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.

Here are some steps to take to guard against fraud and abuse:

ORGANIZE YOUR AFFAIRS NOW Everyone, no matter what age, should have a durable power of attorney so a trusted person can have control of their finances if needed.

If Mr. Cropsey had appointed such a person while still in good health, Ms. Franklin and Ms. Lyons may have been spared much of their ordeal. The same goes for your will.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT PERSON “Your oldest child who can’t balance his own bank account, may simply not be the best idea,” said Tim Casserly, a lawyer at Burke & Casserly, the firm that represented Ms. Franklin. “Choosing the right people ahead of time will avoid a lot of problems and even possible fraud later.” And trust your instincts.

CONSIDER A CHECK AND BALANCE In all states, you may assign two or more people the task of power of attorney, said Susan Fitzpatrick Nixon, the Burke & Casserly lawyer who worked with Ms. Franklin.

This is a good idea for two reasons. You can safeguard against fraud and in an emergency, if one power of attorney is unavailable the other can act on your behalf.

ASK FOR A COPY OF STATEMENTS It is also a good idea to have a duplicate copy of financial statements sent to someone knowledgeable and trustworthy in case your statements are being diverted by someone who is trying to steal from you.

Any account holder or power of attorney for an account holder may authorize a financial institution to send copies to other parties. If Ms. Franklin had sent duplicates of her brother’s account statements to someone she trusted, she might have spotted troublesome charges earlier.

~ by Butch on November 24, 2012.

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