Some people call it the "silver tsunami." America's population is aging and with it more and more of our parents and grandparents are falling victim to exploitation.
Seventy-four-year-old Lin McDowell believes she's one of those senior citizens. McDowell lived old school – she never rang up credit card debt. She paid cash for her cars, and consistently saved as she worked for decades in different careers, including as a project manager position at NASA, a real estate agent, and an art gallery owner.
"I had a $100,000 CD, I had a very good stock portfolio. I had investments," said McDowell.
In 2012 McDowell, divorced and estranged from her children, lived in a quaint rambler with pretty gardens in the backyard, on a nice street in Vancouver, Wash. By then, she'd managed to bank nearly $250,000 in cash and cash equivalents.
Two-and-a half years later, the bank account's been drained to roughly $20,000. The home's been sold.
"I've sold my wedding rings (to buy groceries)," said McDowell.
She and her dog Sam live in a motor home in an RV park just a few feet from noisy Interstate 5, with a Subway sandwich shop in the backyard. And that's where the RV stays put. McDowell can't afford the gas to take it out on the road.
"I am absolutely broke, yeah," said McDowell. "You don't realize that everything you've earned and worked for your whole lifetime can be taken away."
McDowell didn't get robbed or taken by an illegal pyramid scheme. She lost her life savings right underneath the noses of at least four different Clark County Superior Court judges who oversaw a perfectly legal professional guardianship that was put in place to manage McDowell's affairs.
Three years ago after a series of health problems, a psychologist diagnosed McDowell with "cognitive impairment" and "psychotic delusions." A judge ruled she was an "incapacitated person" in need of a professional guardian.
With no family around to help, a professional would be in charge of McDowell's mail, bills, and nearly all her decisions.
McDowell completely disagreed with the decision to place her under guardianship.
"You have no rights. Here's a piece of paper from the court that says you have no rights. I couldn't sign my own name," said McDowell.
So where did all the money go? Records show once a guardian started on the case, so did the spending. The first guardian spent nearly every penny of Lin's cash in under two years. Most of the money paid for attorneys, a caregiver service and guardian fees.
Some of the charges reviewed by KING include:
- $342 for a three hour breakfast with her client at Biscuits Cafe.
- $95 for visiting Lin to drop off a birthday present.
- $47.50 for a phone call on Thanksgiving.
"So where are these fees going? Legal fees, administrative fees, guardianship fees. Fees, fees, fees….My radar goes up," said Kretzschmar.
Against McDowell's will the guardian also sold her home. She also moved McDowell into a swanky retirement complex where the monthly rent -- $3,500 – was more than her client's estate could sustain. That rent was more than three times the amount of the mortgage McDowell was paying on her home.
"I think the thing that disturbs me the most is that she was under a guardianship, and she was supposed to be protected by people who had her best interests at heart, and who were being paid to have her best interests at heart. To have this happen under legal circumstances, there are no words for that," said Tiffany Couch, a forensic accountant working pro-bono for McDowell as she seeks answers to what happened to her savings.
A second guardian billed McDowell in a way no professional KING 5 consulted has ever heard of -- by the second.
Records show the guardian appeared to charge her client every time she left a voicemail for McDowell or touched a piece of mail.
"This doesn't look to me as if we're in the business to care for people. This looks to me like if I pick up a piece of paper and I'm billing it by the second or every 30 seconds, I'm in it for the money," said Couch.
The guardians in this case wouldn't agree to an interview with KING 5. But in court filings they wrote that the case had a "contentious nature" from the start and that the guardianship was "complicated by information received from Ms. McDowell."
In addition, a guardian wrote that McDowell had personal and professional relationships with outsiders that "created unnecessary confusion" and "increased work for the Guardians."
Asked if McDowell was served well in the guardianship, one of the professionals responded: "absolutely."
Elder care experts say we'll see a lot more "Lin McDowell's" as more and more Baby Boomers age into their 70s, 80s and beyond. One problem the experts identify is that in Washington state, there is very little oversight of professional guardianships. Judges authorize a guardian's actions, but advocates say no one is taking a hard look at the where the money's going.
"There's no real reconciliation or oversight over these billings. (It's a) rubber stamp," said Couch.
Adding salt to the wound, it's quite possible Lin McDowell never should have been in a guardianship in the first place.
In September 2014, a court appointed investigator found McDowell "has demonstrated remarkable independence with regard to her daily living activities." The investigator also wrote, "There is no need to continue the … guardianships."
The investigator relied on the input of medical professionals working with McDowell who found she is not an incapacitated individual.
"(McDowell) has been labeled with dementia by her caretakers and the court. Ms. McDowell was seen by the undersigned (doctor) for eleven one-hour sessions and her level of functioning was never impaired."
After that detailed report, a judge terminated the guardianship on September 26, 2014.
During her 29 months of living under a court-appointed guardian who oversaw every aspect of her life, McDowell said she experienced extreme depression and at times lost the will to live.
"(It was) almost too tough. Almost too hard to get up. Almost too hard to keep pushing," said McDowell.
With McDowell back in charge of her own life, the guardian issued her a check in September for the remaining balance of her life savings: $24,251.90.
"I've got (my dog) Sam, that's it. I've got Sam and enough money to, well, I've already paid my rent here for the month."
"These are the people who have built this nation on their back and don't they deserve at least safety and security as they age? Don't they deserve a voice?" said Kretschmar.
It's unclear if there is any financial recourse for Lin McDowell. She has professionals working pro-bono to explore options.
The KING 5 Investigators have been in communication with lawmakers working on legislation to tighten up loopholes in the professional guardianship process. State Sen. Ann Rivers (R-Vancouver) has introduced a bill that would hold guardians more accountable in the state.
"Washington leads the way in a lot of things like the health exchange and marijuana. Why can't we be a model for how we treat seniors?" said Rivers.
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Senior citizen says guardianship left her 'absolutely broke'