June 14, 2013
Many seniors, in an effort to put their affairs in order or to plan ahead if they
are unable to make their own decision, transfer property, bank accounts and other
assets to family or friends. Sometimes, however, this is not a wise decision if the
property and assets are not used for the benefit of the senior. In these cases, it
is Elder Abuse.
In the McGeorge Elder and Health Law Clinic, clients come to us when they find themselves in financial trouble after having added a relative or friend to the deed of their house or as a joint bank account holder. Some of the reasons clients give for doing this are "I wanted to avoid the need for a Will or Trust, so I added my son to the deed of my house as a joint tenant," or, "I wanted my daughter to have access to my money in case I become ill and am unable to pay my bills." What these seniors did not realize is that by adding someone to their house deed or bank account, they gave that person a present interest in the house or account. In the case of a client who added her son to the deed of the house, she made him a joint owner. The daughter who was added to the bank account was able to add and withdraw money from the account immediately, regardless of whether she was using the money for herself or her mother. The Clinic has worked with seniors who have added someone to their bank account with the intention that the money was only to be spent for their benefit or to pass to the other person upon the senior's death, but then a short time later that the person, emptied the account or used property for their own benefit.
Adding someone to a bank account can also affect eligibility for certain public benefits. In another case involving a joint bank account, the daughter added a substantial amount of her own funds to the bank account, which then made the her elderly mother ineligible for Medi-Cal. Because her name was on the account, which held funds in excess of the Medi-Cal resource limit, the mother was not eligible for Medi-Cal benefits. Although this was ultimately rectified, it would have been better if the family had obtained legal advice and counsel ahead of time.
Unfortunately, those we trust most, our family members, are the same people most likely to financially abuse seniors. Ms. M came to the McGeorge Elder and Health Law Clinic seeking legal assistance to remove her son from the deed to her home. After the death of her husband her youngest son had come to her insisting that his name needed to be on the deed to her home "in order to take care of things should anything happen to her." Emotional and trusting her son, Ms. M added him to the deed as a joint tenant although she had 7 other children. She did not understand that doing so made him a joint owner and that the property would transfer to him fully upon her death. A few years later, her son became involved in drugs and was abusive to her resulting in her obtaining a restraining order against him. He attempted to evict her from her own home. A team of clinical students represented Ms. M and were able to not only thwart her son's attempts to evict her but also successfully had the son's name removed from the house deed.
These cases demonstrate the importance of seeking independent advice before making a significant decision such as adding someone else to the deed of your house or bank account. Good estate and health care planning helps prepare for an uncertain future and can give peace of mind.
The McGeorge Elder and Health Law Clinic is able to assist low income Sacramento County seniors with simple wills, trusts, powers of attorney and advance health care directives. Please call 916.340.6080 starting July 15, 2013 for a consultation.
Melissa Brown, Supervising Attorney, McGeorge Elder Law and Health Clinic
Email | 916.739.77378