My cousin “Ann” was 98 years old when she died in New York in April 2020. She did not have children and she was very special to me. I would visit her periodically and spoke to her most days. She had me named as executor of her will. I was to inherit her estate. 

I have a document stating that the court felt that Ann needed someone to watch over the $300,000 in her bank accounts. “Sam,” a friend of Ann’s, told the court that he would do this. I was told at the bank that Sam could have limited access to Ann’s funds to pay bills, etc.

I often went over her checkbook and bills to make sure there were no overcharges or unusual amounts taken out. Sam was kind to her, and she liked the attention he gave her. Ann needed help: She went to school up until 7th grade, and she made a living sewing.

Emptied bank accounts

I let Sam stay at Ann’s residence, as the coronavirus was in full bloom, so he could continue to pay bills, etc. Sam was very kind, and even on occasion helped me navigate the subway. I did not get appointed fiduciary for Ann’s estate until August 2022, and I did not get the official “letters testamentary” until Aug. 1, 2023.

That’s when I found out her savings and checking accounts were closed. It seems that Sam’s two nephews accessed the funds and her $300,000 annuity. I was never told Sam had been added as a co-owner. I understood that Sam had the ability to sign checks.

I would have thought that Sam would have a fiduciary responsibility to Ann. I asked the bank to send me documents concerning the accounts, but it refused. The attorney handling the probate has submitted a request to the court for such documents. 

Escape from a previous grifter

Probate is not over. I am in the process of putting together all the expenses I have had in the past trying to manage this. I have had to be “bonded” to ensure I carried out my duties under the law for three years, hire an attorney, clean out the property and so on. Also, there were many repairs needed to even put it on the market.

Ann was also financially defrauded by a woman, “Mary,” over the course of 10 years. It took nearly four years in a civil court to prove fraud and have this grifter removed from the title to Ann’s property. Mary was also issued a judgment for $200,000, which was never paid.

Mary put the funds in her son’s name. Given Ann’s advanced age, I told her I was not going to go after Mary for the money. Mary was living with her son. Her husband had property in Pennsylvania but he was not party to what the grifter did. I felt she would have to answer to a higher court.

By the way, it was the grifter, Mary, who introduced Sam to Ann.

A Loyal & Devoted Cousin

“The role Sam played in your cousin’s life also seems murky at best.”


MarketWatch illustration

Related: My elderly father is losing his cognitive abilities. I’m afraid my 4 siblings will take over his $300,000 bank account, and move into his house when he dies

Dear Loyal,

Sam, by your account, was a friend of your cousin, and Mary was a grifter. But they have more than one thing in common.

Money went missing under their watch, they both befriended your elderly cousin in her final years, they took an interest in her financial affairs, became somewhat indispensable, ingratiated themselves with her and, what’s more, they even knew each other. When you got rid of one of these bad actors, the other one appeared with the offer of advice, friendship and even assistance on the New York subway.

You kindly — and perhaps naively — blame the loss of $200,000 on Sam’s watch on his two nephews, who you say must have had access to your cousin’s account. There is a reason he was at the right place at the right time, and there is a reason he volunteered to oversee your cousin’s accounts. These were both red flags, as were the circumstances under which he came into Ann’s life in the first place.

The role Sam played in your cousin’s life also seems murky at best, in terms of both his official position and his intentions. Someone with a financial power of attorney does have a fiduciary duty, which states that they must not act in their own self-interest and should maintain a legal responsibility to act in a trustworthy manner. But it’s not clear if Sam had power of attorney or if he was merely a “friend.”

Statute of limitations

Each state has a different statute of limitations when it comes to certain kinds of fraud and elder abuse. In New York, the plaintiff has six years to bring a case, but an attorney would be better placed to advise you on this. The burden of proof lies with you, and you’ll need to supply a paper trail to build your case. Given that both your cousin and the money are now gone, that will be an uphill battle.

Becoming executor of a person’s will and/or having power of attorney are big jobs, possibly too much for one person. But the latter carries a lot of power to make financial and medical decisions. “The best choice is someone you trust. Integrity, not financial acumen, is often the most important trait of a potential agent,” according to the American Bar Association.

Typically, if you suspect someone of elder abuse — emotional, physical, psychological or financial — you should report them to Adult Protective Services. You can also call 911 or report them to local law-enforcement authorities or your district attorney’s office. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has more information on how to report elder financial abuse.

It’s a big problem. The National Center on Elder Abuse, a government agency affiliated with the U.S. Administration on Aging, reports that research on elder abuse lags by as much as two decades behind research into the fields of child abuse and domestic violence. It says that one in 10 people over the age of 60 in the U.S. experienced some form of abuse in the prior year.

Signs of elder abuse

Financial signs of elder abuse include fraudulent signatures on documents, overdue bills and “unusual or sudden changes in spending patterns, will or other financial documents,” according to the nonprofit National Council on Aging. Caretakers, friends and family members are among the most common perpetrators. Such crimes cost elderly people up to $28 billion annually, although official estimates may not truly reflect the true cost.

“Isolation is a red flag and many studies of elder abuse say a lack of a good support system and physical and psychological isolation are hallmarks of the problem,” according to the National Adult Protective Services Association. But it can also happen in plain sight. The more people keeping an eye on an elderly family relative, and their financial accounts, the better.  

Your cousin died believing she was being taken care of, and she had you in her life. I hope that fact, plus the memories you have with her, particularly in those last months, are a small consolation to you so many years after her death. Your story may also help other people with elderly relatives who are being circled by new or old friends who suddenly offer their help, and assist them in recognizing the signs of financial elder abuse.

Sometimes, such unsavory characters arrive unannounced in a shroud of mystery, like Mary. Other times, like Sam, they arrive with a smile.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. 

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

Previous columns by Quentin Fottrell:

My husband and I divorced and bought separate homes. Now we’re back together and thinking of commingling our assets. Is that wise?

My estate is worth millions of dollars. How do I stop my daughters’ husbands from getting their hands on it?

‘It was a mistake’: My father set up a revocable trust, leaving everything to my stepmother. She’s cutting me out completely. What can I do?

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