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Elder Financial Abuse May Compromise Estate Planning

Elder financial abuse is a serious problem that affects many California residents. Caregivers may take advantage of an elderly relative or friend in an attempt to unduly influence their estate planning. In order to help protect the elderly, California law imposes a legal presumption that any gift made under a will or trust from an a “dependent adult” to a “care custodian” is the “product of undue influence or fraud” and therefore legally invalid. This is only a presumption, that can be “rebutted by proving, by clear and convincing evidence” there was no fraud or undue influence.

The presumption of undue influence frequently arises in cases where an elderly individual makes a seemingly last-minute change to a will or trust naming their caregiver, or a relative of the caregiver, as a principal beneficiary. While there may be cases where such gifts legitimately reflect an elderly person’s gratitude for services rendered, the presumption of undue influence must still be rebutted in order to ensure an unscrupulous caregiver is not simply taking advantage of the situation. A recent California appeals court decision helps illustrate this principle.

Jury Disbelieves Caregiver’s Account of “Finding” Amended Trust

An 89-year-old San Francisco resident passed away in 2013. The decedent had no surviving spouse or children, and his closest living relatives were a sister and several nieces and nephews. Prior to his death, the decedent’s neighbor helped care for him.

The decedent created a revocable living trust in 2001. The trust designated a longtime friend as successor trustee and directed her to distribute the trust assets among his surviving family. But while cleaning out the decedent’s residence after his death, the neighbor-caregiver claimed he found an amended trust document (in a trash bin) which named him as the successor trustee and primary beneficiary. The only other named beneficiary was the friend who was previously named as trustee; she was to receive $75,000.

The decedent’s sole surviving sister filed a civil lawsuit in California accusing the caregiver-neighbor of elder financial abuse and seeking damages. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the sister. (Please note this was not a challenge to the validity of the trust itself, which is a probate matter that would not be tried before a jury in California.) The caregiver appealed, but the California Court of Appeal upheld the verdict.

As the appeals court explained, the jury heard evidence from “credible witnesses” that the decedent never amended his trust before his death. In contrast, “there were evident holes” in the caregiver’s account of “finding” the purportedly amended trust. Ultimately, the court said, the jury “had every right to disbelieve” the caregiver’s testimony and find he was liable for elder financial abuse.

Need Help with Estate Planning?

When you make an estate plan, it is important to ensure your wishes are carried out and not compromised by someone taking advantage of your declining health to appropriate your assets for themselves. That is why you should never agree to make or revise any document disposing of your assets without first receiving independent advice from an experienced California estate planning attorney. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you need to speak with someone right away.

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