Tips for the elderly to avoid financial exploitation
Maine Legal Services for the Elderly, which provides free legal services to socially and economically needy elderly people age 60 and over, offers the following tips to help the elderly avoid being financially exploited:
- Do not give your home away to someone in exchange for a promise to care for you or allow you to live there as long as you live. These kinds of promises are broken every day and you could find yourself without a home or the help you need. If you need help to stay in your home, contact your local area agency on aging at 1-877-353-3771 to find out more about services in your area.
- Do not be persuaded by family member arguments that you need to give your home away to protect it from the state. If someone suggests you need to give your home away to protect your home, contact a trusted professional that can help you plan for your future. Call Legal Services for the Elderly at 1-800-750-5353 for free confidential legal help.
- Powers of Attorney are useful and important tools, but they can be misused. Only execute a power of attorney after consulting with a lawyer and only appoint someone you trust completely. Beware of gifting clauses in power of attorney documents. You can and often should limit the power you give your agent. Grant no more authority to your agent than is needed.
- Do not let anyone rush or pressure you into signing a document, purchasing something or giving away your money or property. Take your time. Consult with others. If you feel rushed or pressured, pause, talk to others including trusted friends and family members, your banker or lawyer, or other professionals such as clergy members or social workers.
- Again, if you put your home in someone’s name by signing a deed, they then own your home. That person can then evict you or sell the home and keep the money for themselves as it is no longer your home — no matter the spoken promise of life tenancy or lifelong care.
More information is available at www.mainelse.org.
BROOKS, Maine — All his life, Arthur Green worked with his hands.
The 74-year-old retired construction worker and carpenter used those hands for 50 years as a laborer in Massachusetts. He also used them to build himself a home and an adjoining camp on Sanborn Pond in the small town of Brooks, where he expected to peacefully enjoy his twilight years among the loons and the tall white pine trees.
But when he used them in March 2011 to take hold of a notice of eviction that was served on him by the granddaughter he had helped raise, that sense of peace disappeared.
He learned that he had inadvertently signed away all his rights to the property, and that 20-year-old Nevin Bennoch of Brockton, Mass., was trying to sell some of his real estate while he was living there.
“It’s a heck of a thing to go through,” Green said this week.
What happened to Green is a tangled knot of financial exploitation, unclear understanding of estate planning and family betrayal that took months to unravel with the help of Legal Services for the Elderly, according to the attorneys who helped him recover his property.
Jaye Martin, director of the Augusta-based nonprofit agency, described Green’s situation as a “very classic scenario of a family member stealing the house and land and then trying to evict the elder from his own home.”
What separates Green from others is his willingness to talk about what happened to him, Martin and attorney Denis Culley said.
On Tuesday, Green sat at the kitchen table of the former hunting camp he had transformed into a comfortable lakeside home, his black cat Marie playing at his feet. He suffers from severe health problems and settled himself slowly and painfully into a chair. He said that he wanted to share his story so that nobody else will have to go through what he did, and Culley sat next to him as he disclosed the details of what had happened.
“Don’t sit there and think everything’s rosy, ‘cause it ain’t,” he said. “The worst ones to trust is your family.”
‘Looking to move you out’
Culley said that Green fits into a large category of Maine elders who own property but have few resources otherwise.
“Land rich,” he said succinctly.
Green began working as a laborer at 15, and didn’t retire until he was well into his 60s, but his parcel on Sanborn Pond is his only asset. It’s a considerable one, Culley said, adding that at the time of the transfer to Bennoch the town of Brooks valued the property at nearly $200,000. Yet Green relies on the $1,047 he gets each month from Social Security to pay for living expenses and property taxes.
When Green came up to Maine to work on his house on Sanborn Pond when Bennoch was a girl, he would often bring her with him.
“I was close to all my grandchildren. Nevin was a favorite,” he said.
He did not suspect that the young woman wouldn’t have his best interests in mind when she asked him — an elderly man suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, whom his lawyer describes as “marginally literate” — to sign a deed prepared by a Brockton attorney in April 2010.
Efforts this week to contact Bennoch via telephone and Facebook were unsuccessful.
“Green signed the deed under the impression that he would retain a life estate and be allowed to live in his home, on his land in Brooks, rent free, for the rest of his life,” Culley wrote in a Waldo County Superior Court motion submitted last May.
But, in fact, the deed that he actually signed transferred all his land and buildings to Bennoch in exchange for no money and with no life estate clause. Green did not have independent counsel to advise him during the legal process.
A few months after he signed the deed, Bennoch moved into Green’s home along with other relatives, according to a complaint filed in court in the spring of 2011.
“[They] began a campaign of harassment and cruelty designed to drive the plaintiff from his home,” Culley wrote in the complaint. “The … transfer of Plaintiff’s real estate to Defendant was the proximate cause of emotional distress, pain and suffering to Plaintiff.”
In spring 2011, Bennoch put a “for sale” sign on the lawn of his camp next door to his home.
“That pushed things up fast,” Green said.
The harassment, the for sale sign and the eviction notice took a physical and mental toll.
“I got all worked up,” he said.
His doctor put him on a prescription for depression and anxiety, conditions that he continues to suffer.
“I thought I was going to live a nice life here,” he said, struggling to find the words to point out how it all went wrong.
“They were looking to move you out, Arthur,” Culley said.
‘Dim view of humanity’
According to the lawyer, this kind of financial exploitation is something that Legal Services for the Elderly sees fairly regularly. In part because many people have an imprecise understanding of how Medicaid works, they believe that elderly people should transfer assets to the younger generation so that the state won’t seize those to pay for nursing home costs later. Those costs now range around $9,000 to $10,000 a month.
“An elder making a transfer and signing a deed should be getting advice that this transfer could really cost them down the road,” Culley said.
Medicaid — which in Maine is called MaineCare — is a needs-based program, which is only available to people with insufficient resources.
“It’s not for the middle class or better,” the attorney said. “People have this idea: ‘I’d better impoverish myself.’ It causes a panic. And younger people often feed the panic.”
But the state now looks back five years from the time a person needs MaineCare to see if he or she has made any transfers, or gifts, for less than market value during that period.
“People think of MaineCare as a straight benefit. It’s not,” Culley said. “It’s like a medium-term loan. When you die, they will make a claim against your estate.”
He said that estate planning attorneys can help people structure gifts in a way that won’t cause a penalty — but added that often elderly people make good victims for financial exploitation, especially at the hands of those they trust.
“It’s a very strange system, and it’s very poorly perceived, because it’s Byzantine and complicated,” Culley said. “We live in a cowboy nation. When you’re old and sad, you’re on your own.”
Fortunately for Green, he sought help. He initially visited Belfast attorney Roger Blake, who referred him to Legal Services for the Elderly.
“Arthur is an incredibly stoic guy. His story is incredibly compelling,” Culley said.
The attorney said he worked fast once he learned of Green’s plight, initially filing a complaint in Waldo County Superior Court in Belfast to slow down the possible sale of his property. In May 2011, Culley then sought a summary judgment which would show that there had been “improvident transfer of title and unjust enrichment” in the property matter.
Two months later, the court ordered alternative dispute mediation between Green and Bennoch.
It didn’t go well, Culley said.
“We tried everything to reason with Nevin,” he said.
Culley said that she asked how she was going to be able to live without the money from Green’s property. The attorney lost his temper. He told her she could find something else to do that didn’t involve stealing from her grandfather.
“In my line of work, I find people have an infinite ability to justify their actions,” he said. “It can give you a dim view of humanity.”
Last December, Justice Robert Murray decided the matter in favor of Green and ordered that the deed be rescinded.
In his order, Murray wrote that it was clear that Green did not have independent counsel at the time he signed the deed to Bennoch for less than the fair market value of the property.
“Such a transfer is deemed to be the result of undue influence,” he wrote.
By January, the house, land and camp were all back in Green’s name — although he must still figure out a way to pay the back taxes that his granddaughter did not when she owned the property, according to Culley.
Later that day, Green slowly raised himself out of his kitchen chair and made his way outside to a spot near the fire pit next to the water.
“It’s all over and done with,” he said. “That’s all I know — as long as they don’t come around bugging me.”
He pointed out the ducks that live on Sanborn Pond and the dock where he used to catch bass in the evenings. Dragonflies skimmed over the shining surface of the water, and lily pads floated in the sunshine.
“It’s beautiful here. Real nice. Quiet,” he said.
Culley said it’s important that others know what happened to Green, so that they can better protect themselves and be less vulnerable to what he called estate planning gone bad.
“It’s a really devastating thing,” he said. “It’s a trap for the unwary.”
All along, Green had intended to leave his hard-earned property to the family he loves. But now his trust in them has been eroded, Culley said.
“I think it broke his heart to have this happen,” he said.
For information about Legal Services for the Elderly, visit the website http://www.mainelse.org. The agency’s toll-free helpline is 1-800-750-5353.