Financial Kidnapping

Old age brings its own repertoire of familiar afflictions – arthritis, high blood pressure – which a physician can usually spot with ease.  Also, though, a serious economic hazard that the financial practitioner may not spot because he hasn’t encountered it before.  I refer to a calculated raid on the estate of a rich, lonely, oldster.  One sees it fairly often in the private client end of the business.  In fact, I have a case going on right now.

There are two main variations:  old men and old women.  In the former, a geriatric nurse or companion takes over an elderly gentleman who has gotten feeble to the point that she becomes able to dominate him quite completely.  I’ll call her the Wicked Witch.  By degrees she flushes out the staff in his household by telling tales on them:  True or false, it makes no difference:  The cook is stealing food, she claims, the housekeeper calls him Scrooge, the chauffeur drinks a lot.  The oldster (hereafter the aged P.) more or less believes these reports, which the W.W. delivers sadly, so when the time is ripe, out go the retainers, one by one, to be replaced by her relatives or accomplices.

The next step is that on the infrequent occasions when the old gent’s children telephone or visit they are told that he can’t see them just then.  Later, it’s that he doesn’t want to see them.  So the children lose heart and drop out of touch.

In time, the W.W. may move the aged P. to a remote community where the family can’t conveniently come.  She brings in a new lawyer and has his will changed to favor her, the new entourage she’s hired, and some local charities ready to testify he was intellectually sound.

She may well mistreat the aged P. In one instance, I encountered, after he was rescued he had to be hospitalized.

The female variation arises when a one or two decorators or equivalent encounter a rich but neglected and lonely old woman – Madame, let’s call her – and make her their project.  Trips to gallery openings, concerts, high-level museum receptions.  She loves it all.  Then follows the same drill:  They acquire an ascendancy over her, they move into the house, they start excluding her relatives, they discharge the old servants, and if possible, move her away a considerable distance.  Soon follow the new lawyer and the new will.  In one instance my office noticed some odd expenditures in the account of an elderly woman client who had moved (or been moved) to Florida.  My own secretary, Pat P., who knew Madame well, went to Florida for a look-see, and found the financial kidnapping well advanced.  Her companion – a woman, this time – had actually bought herself a Rolls-Royce with Madame’s money! When the situation was revealed to the police the dealer was made to swallow back the magnificent vehicle, and the companion was given the sack.

In one surprising variation the man – not so old, but a heavy drinker – met a Kindly Fellow (KF) at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting who offered to help him stay off the sauce.  After a while KF became almost a member of the family.  He would take our man out to meals, then on trips.  He got a credit card on our man’s account, and used it to buy things for himself.  Our man’s wife (she was the actual client) was distraught, but her badgering got nowhere.

The charm of it all is that Alcoholics Anonymous really is anonymous, so the family knew very little indeed about KF.  In the end we hired an agency called Proudfoot that exposed the worms in KF’s background:  a bankruptcy, fraud charges, very unsavory connections.  There was a confrontation at the dinner-table, which was described to me later.  “We know all about you!” announced the wife.  She proceeded to recite chapter and verse.  The KF turned white.  He realized the jig was up.  “If you ever say a word of this to anybody I’ll hound you to death!” he shouted, and vanished forever.

One should be alert to the tremors at the edge of the spiderweb that betray the start of a financial snatch attempt.  To halt and undo the process before things have gone too far, the family has to move forcefully.  It’s likely to be a wretched affair, like a bitterly contested divorce.  To use the Chinese expression, you’re breaking the other person’s rice bowl, the big prize he or she’s been counting on, so you’ll need a tough lawyer, and probably a private detective.  Very likely there must be a heavy intervention, in which the victim is extracted from the residence and brought back under the control of the family.  Litigation may result, which, however, the family should win.  Unpleasant, but the alternative can be much worse.

How can you stop this situation from arising?  There’s only one good way:  The family must be especially kind and thoughtful to their elderly relations, see them a lot, take them out, show affection.  Then the whole maneuver won’t get started. ■