Dirt lawyers: help guard against elder abuse!

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elderly couple lake smaller

My company recently sent out a memorandum about elder abuse in the financial and real estate industries that made some interesting points.

My father died last September and, although he was as sharp as a tack until the end, he had difficulty hearing and his reactions had slowed. As a result, my brother and I had to carefully and repeatedly (and loudly!) explain to him every move we were making with regard to his care and finances. If he had needed to enter into any type of real estate transaction in the last months of his life, the real estate lawyer should have had antennae up!

Elderly persons should be treasured, not abused! And, as real estate lawyers, we may be in a particular position to guard against abuses.

Elder abuse often happens at the hands of family members or “friends” who, because of the vulnerabilities associated with age, such as mental impairment, are able to employ methods such as theft, fraud, forgery, extortion and the wrongful use of powers of attorney to separate an elderly person from property or funds.

Reflect upon the numbers of stories you have heard in your community about elderly persons falling prey to telephone scams. Those same individuals would not have succumbed in their prime. Even with all mental facilities in place, they don’t hear as well, they don’t keep up with changes in technology, and they are unable to keep up with fraud trends we all hear about every day.

Here are some signs of elder financial abuse that you may be able to detect in your office:

  • Sudden changes in an elderly person’s estate planning documents;
  • Changes made in the title to properties in favor of a “friend;”
  • Home health aide, housekeeper or other person is added to the accounts of an elderly person or is receiving an assignment of proceeds;
  • Family members or trusted “friend” discourages or interferes with direct communications with an elderly person involved in a transaction;
  • The older person seems unable to comprehend the financial implications of the transaction;
  • The older person signs documents without seemingly knowing or understanding what is being signed;
  • A power of attorney is involved. I’ve told this story many times, but we had a wonderful claims attorney with our company who routinely called powers of attorney “instruments of the devil”. Powers of attorney are extremely useful tools in our world, but we should always exercise caution when they are used, especially when an elderly person is involved;
  • Anyone seems to be forcing the elderly person to act;
  • Numerous unpaid bills may be a clue that someone is diverting the money designated for the daily living of the elderly person;
  • Promises of lifelong care in exchange for property;
  • The elderly person complains that he or she used to have money but doesn’t understand why the money is no longer available;
  • The caregiver is evasive about the specifics of the transaction in the presence of the elderly person;
  • The elderly person seems fearful or reticent to speak in front of a family member, friend, loan officer, real estate agent or anyone involved in the transaction.
  • The accompanying family member or caregiver attempts to prevent the elderly person from interacting with others.
  • The elderly person and the family member or caregiver give conflicting accounts of the transaction, the expenditures or the financial need.
  • The elderly person appears disheveled or without proper care even though he or she has adequate financial resources.

Be mindful of these common-sense suggestions when any of your real estate transactions involve elderly persons. Think of them as you would want someone to think of your parents or aunts and uncles. Be careful to protect their interests. Proceed with caution!

Elders may also be the victims of predatory lending. Elders who own their homes and have built up equity over time become targets of predatory loan originators who pressure them in to high-interest loans that they may not be able to repay. Older homeowners are often persuaded to borrow money through home equity loans for home repairs, debt consolidation or to pay health care costs. These loans may be sold as “miracle financial cures” and are often packed with excessive fees, costly mortgage insurance and balloon payments.

Always discuss transactions directly with your elderly clients. Ask them pointed questions to make sure they understand the transaction.

And, as always, employ your instincts and your common sense.

A recorded power of attorney may not be necessary to establish agency where real estate is involved

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In a recent South Carolina Court of Appeals case*, a mother was held to be bound by the actions of her wheeler-dealer son who appeared to act in her behalf buying and selling properties in Laurens County.

Frank Lollis lived with and took care of his mother, Kathleen Lollis, and managed real estate transactions for the family. The attorney who handled these transactions testified that he saw Frank sign his mother’s name and that he thought he recalled Frank showing him a power of attorney.

power of attorney

Lisa and Dennis Dutton, plaintiffs in this case, suing to enforce contracts Frank signed, testified that Frank had said he had a power of attorney. At trial, following Frank’s death, Mrs. Lollis denied the existence of the power of attorney.

Lisa Dutton testified that she had known Frank for nineteen years and had done a lot of real estate business with him and his family. She said that all of the locations where she had lived for the ten years prior to the trial were related to the Lollis family and every time she purchased property that was titled in Mrs. Lollis’ name, she dealt with Frank and his attorney. She said she “never had an issue” until she tried to obtain a deed to enforce a contract at issue in this case.

Frank’s attorney testified that Frank did a lot of his business in cash and always carried a lot of cash. Frank typically bought property in other individuals’ names and signed their names to documents, including not only his mother, but a former employee. The attorney signed an affidavit to the effect that Frank explained his “checkered past” required him to operate in the names of other individuals. The affidavit further stated that Mrs. Lollis knew Frank titled properties in her name.

Frank was diagnosed with cancer, and when he became increasingly ill, he asked his attorney to prepare a power of attorney for his mother naming his sister as the attorney-in-fact. After Frank’s death, the Duttons unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the deed to consummate the contract Frank had signed in his mother’s behalf. This lawsuit followed.

The case contains a detailed discussion of the law of agency in South Carolina. Real estate lawyers should know that their clients can become bound by their actions even in the absence of a recorded power of attorney because agency is a question of fact that does not necessarily depend upon an express appointment and acceptance.

An agency relationship is frequently implied or inferred from the words and conduct of the parties and the circumstances of the particular case. The Court of Appeals stated that agency may be proved circumstantially by the conduct of the purported agent exhibiting a pretense of authority with the knowledge of the principal.

The doctrine of apparent authority provides that the principal is bound by the acts of his agent when he has placed the agent in such a position that persons of ordinary prudence, reasonably knowledgeable with business usages and customs, are led to believe the agent has authority and they can deal with the agent based on that assumption.

This rule is based on public policy and convenience to provide safety for third parties.  In this case, the attorney testified that the mother was “fully aware that Frank was buying and selling property in her name” and was “transacting business in her name.” Lisa and her husband testified that Mrs. Lollis was present when they made some payments to Frank. Mrs. Lollis never objected and even retrieved the receipt book for Frank on a few occasions.

Lisa testified (1) Frank told her he had a power of attorney; (2) Lisa relied on Frank’s representation; and (3) she would not have entered into the contract and made payments had she known Mrs. Lollis would not acknowledge the existence of the contract. Dennis testified that (1) he believed Frank was acting on his mother’s behalf; (2) he relied on the course of dealing established in a number of transactions; and (3) if he had known Mrs. Lollis was not going to honor the contract, he would not have entered into it nor made payments.

The Court said that Mrs. Lollis’ knowledge that her son was buying and selling real estate in her name and her tacit acceptance of this practice placed Frank in such a position that the plaintiffs were led to believe he had the authority to act. The plaintiffs dealt with Frank based on that assumption. The preponderance of the evidence, according to the Court, shows an agency relationship between Mrs. Lollis and Frank as well as his apparent authority to sell. Frank’s actions were binding on his mother.

*Lollis v. Dutton, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5522 (November 1, 2017)