W. Cory Reiss
It takes a village to protect the elderly
Swindlers had already victimized the 87-year-old man by the time three people moved onto his property, installed surveillance cameras around it, and pulled the curtains of his house closed in May of 2017.
Not long before, this gentleman had wired money to a con artist who delivered him a suitcase supposedly full of cash that contained shredded newspapers. When promised that Gov. Roy Cooper would personally deliver two new cars if he sent money to another cheat, the old man did so, and he was seen standing in his driveway in his Sunday best on the appointed evening, waiting for the special delivery.
But this incursion by three people, two of whom he had known for years, was more ambitious. Within a month, the elderly fellow had executed a new will, power of attorney, trust documents, and a deed conveying all 140 acres of his family farm—to the benefit of the folks who had assumed control over his life. All told, he would execute nine legal documents relinquishing his rights and property to them, all while being led to believe that his friends and closest family were his enemies and not to be trusted.
Not too late, however, his best friend of 40 years and our client found out what was happening, and we intervened.
A Superior Court judge recently ruled that the elderly man was not competent to execute any of those instruments, and that he had been the victim of undue influence when he did. Another judge then entered a permanent injunction barring the intruders from communicating with the elderly gentleman again. He has since reunited with friends and family and is reclaiming his life. And the family farm is protected.
Because the intruders have appealed those decisions, I’m limiting this description to details in the public record. But this decision offers a warning: elder abuse is real and can take years to repel. Sometimes, it can only be countered when friends and family are brave enough to intervene.
Undue influence is the legal term for the effect that one person has over another to obtain an objective favorable to the interloper and against the interests of the victim. It’s usually accomplished by isolating a vulnerable person from anyone he trusts who might counteract the psychological sway being applied. Because it happens behind closed doors, direct proof is hard to come by, but a sudden change of an elderly person’s long-held plans is one key sign.
In this case, a psychiatrist determined that the victim was convinced the people who love him most were not his friends. Most friends, neighbors, and family members of an elder are reluctant to take firm steps to intervene in a grown man or woman’s life, even when things “don’t look right,” because it’s hard to believe that what they suspect is happening really is happening.
That can be a tough call, but in many ways our safety nets are not designed to catch and rapidly repel such an invasion. In this case, a relative called the Department of Social Services, but the agency performed a cursory review and nothing more. Notified of the likely undue influence underway, law enforcement declined to act. It has taken relentless and careful private litigation to keep one elderly man’s rights and worldly possessions from being stripped away. But when the war got heated, friends, neighbors, and family members did rise up to provide crucial, and compelling, testimony.
And even if he didn't understand it at the time, this gentleman’s best friend stepped up when it mattered.