J. Kelly Kennedy, Attorney/CPA, PLLC

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Family claims inheritance stolen through financial exploitation

The percentage of Americans who are senior citizens has been steadily rising in recent years, and nowhere is that change more apparent than in Florida, where about a quarter of the population is age 65 or older. Unfortunately, alongside this trend has come another troubling development: law enforcement and other officials have noticed a big increase in cases involving financial exploitation of vulnerable seniors. Sadly, many family members don't even learn that this kind of exploitation has happened to their loved ones until after they have passed and their heirs find that the deceased's estate and assets have been plundered by unscrupulous associates or scam artists.

In one recent case, relatives of a wealthy woman who died two years ago contested her will, claiming that a hospital had tricked her out of millions of dollars. According to the relatives' complaint, the hospital kept the woman, who may have suffered from dementia, in an expensive room in the hospital for 20 years even though she didn't need around-the-clock medical care. On top of that, the relatives claim the hospital pressured the woman into giving millions of dollars in donations to the hospital during her lifetime, as well as a $1 million bequest in her will. According to the complaint, the plot to exploit the woman's fortune involved many officials in the nonprofit hospital's leadership, including its chief executive and his mother.

According to the relatives, the woman played with dolls, watched cartoons and showed other signs that dementia had reduced her to a childlike state. Nonetheless, they claim hospital officials pressed her to make financial decisions about her estate. In their lawsuit, the relatives are claiming that the woman's will, which was revised to make a large donation to the hospital, is invalid.

To execute a valid will in Florida, a person must have testamentary capacity. This means that the person must be over age 18, must understand the extent and value of his or her property and must know who the expected beneficiaries are, what a will is and how these elements will work together to distribute the property. Adults who can't understand these elements can't write a legally enforceable will. Another factor that can invalidate a will is undue influence. This means that the person making the will was being manipulated by someone else.

Source: The New York Times, "Hospital Caring for an Heiress Pressed Her to Give Lavishly," Anemona Hartocollis, May 29, 2013