Saturday, January 16, 2021

New Power of Attorney Simplifies Complexities, Reduces Need for Property Guardians

by Harris Beach PLLC

The New York Power of Attorney is a legal instrument executed by an individual with capacity (a principal) appointing another (an agent) to handle his/her financial affairs. The current durable “short form” Power of Attorney is clunky, cumbersome and difficult to execute without legal support. The 2009 and 2010 statutory amendments to the Power of Attorney laws offered little to reduce the complexities and, in fact, imposed additional constraints on execution and modification of the form. Reform has long been needed and the COVID-19 pandemic made the situation more dire.

Last month, Governor Cuomo signed new legislation that greatly simplifies and improves New York state’s power of attorney form, relaxing certain requirements about signatories and language deviations. Among its improvements and clarifications, the amendment allows an authorized representative to sign the document at the principal’s direction when the principal is physically unable to do so; and expands the agent’s access to the principal’s health care and billing records for financial reasons.

As this amendment takes effect in June 2021, health care facilities – especially nursing homes - should become familiar with the new requirements and its “user-friendly” nature. Patients and residents in care facilities often have financial matters that need to be addressed in the community. The Power of Attorney form can be executed with greater ease so that an agent can be appointed to address those unmet financial needs. If executed properly, the principal’s property affairs can be managed during a period of inability or incapacity and should serve to avoid the nursing home’s or family’s need for costly, time consuming guardianship.

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Bonnie Kraham: Elder Law Power of Attorney can save assets that would go to nursing home costs

 by Bonnie Kraham

With nursing homes costing between $12,000 to $20,000 per month, most seniors should be armed with an Elder Law Power of Attorney that may save assets that would otherwise go to nursing home costs, even on the eve of needing a nursing home.

No one wants a nursing home but the longer we live, the higher the chance we may need a nursing home at the end of life. 

In a Power of Attorney, you name people you choose, called agents, to manage your legal and financial affairs if you are incapacitated. You avoid or reduce the risk of a time consuming and costly guardianship proceeding where a judge appoints a legal guardian to manage your affairs. 

The Elder Law Power of Attorney is a stronger form of a Power of Attorney that includes unlimited gifting powers, which allow a single person who applies for Medicaid in a nursing home to protect assets from nursing home costs by using the gift and loan strategy.

For example, if Mom, who is single, needs a nursing home and has $500,000, she will not qualify for Medicaid to pay for her care. She may only keep $15,900 under Medicaid law. One option is for Mom to spend her money on monthly nursing home costs until only $15,900 remains. Virtually all her nest egg goes to the nursing home instead of to her child, which was the plan.

If Mom has the Elder Law Power of Attorney, the gift and loan strategy works like this. Half of the money, $250,000, goes to the child as a gift under the unlimited gifting powers. The other half of $250,000 goes to the child as a loan under a promissory note with a rate of interest.

Any gifts made in the past five years cause a penalty period. Mom must self-pay the nursing home for a period based on the amount of the gift. In her case, Mom will have to pay the nursing home for about 20 months. Every month during the penalty period, the child pays Mom a monthly payment that, with her income, pays the nursing home bill. At the end of the 20 months, Mom qualifies for Medicaid to pay for her care for the rest of her life and the child keeps the $250,000 gift. Saving half using the gift and loan strategy is sometime referred to as “half a loaf planning.”

A standard Power of Attorney without unlimited gifting powers limits gifting to $500 per year and cannot save Mom’s assets.

The Elder Law Power of Attorney also allows the agent to create, amend and revoke trusts for future circumstances that require more planning. The agent may also change beneficiaries, which is helpful if a beneficiary is disabled and on government benefits.

If Mom had created a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust five or more years before needing a nursing home, she could have saved the entire nest egg for her child. Pre-planning is always more protective, but the Elder Law Power of Attorney is indispensable if needed.

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Las Vegas PD: 3rd woman arrested in elder abuse case

By: Jordan Gartner

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Las Vegas police report they have arrested a third woman connected to an elderly abuse incident that took place on Christmas day last year.

Detectives arrested 57-year-old Eleanor Walters. Authorities say she is the owner and operator of a group home where the alleged abuse took place.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department originally reported that on Dec. 29, 2020, its Special Victims Section received a video from social media that depicted an elderly victim and a vulnerable adult being physically abused by a caretaker.

Detectives were then able to identify and arrest 26-year-old caretaker Stephany Gilbert and 23-year-old Jakia Edwards stemming from the incident on Dec. 25, 2020.

Eleanor Walters
Police say Edwards could be seen in the video as she recorded Gilbert berating the victims and physically abusing them.

Thursday, LVMPD says Walters has been booked in the Clark County Detention Center. She is facing four counts of neglect older or vulnerable person, two counts of abuse older or vulnerable person and conspire to abuse, exploit or isolate older or vulnerable person.

“I’m really proud of the detectives on this case,” said Sgt. James Johnson of the Elder Abuse Unit. “They did a phenomenal job ensuring these victims were taken care of and the suspects were taken off the streets.”

Sgt. Johnson added that many cases of elder abuse go unreported, but he hopes more people will speak up.

In 2020, LVMPD says its Elder Abuse Unit made an arrest or submitted for an arrest warrant in 58 cases.

Anyone who suspects elder abuse is taking place is urged to report it to the LVMPD Elder Abuse Unit by phone at 702-828-3364.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Covid Spurs Families to Shun Nursing Homes, a Shift That Appears Long Lasting


Fearing infection and isolation, relatives are turning to home care as new services make that option more possible for many

 
By Anna Matthews and Tom McGinty
| Photographs by Jeremy M. Lange for The Wall Street Journal 

The pandemic is reshaping the way Americans care for their elderly, prompting family decisions to avoid nursing homes and keep loved ones in their own homes for rehabilitation and other care.

Americans have long relied on institutions to care for the frailest seniors. The U.S. has the largest number of nursing-home residents in the world. But families and some doctors have been reluctant to send patients to such facilities, fearing infection and isolation in places ravaged by Covid-19, which has caused more than 115,000 deaths linked to U.S. long-term-care institutions.

The drop-off has persisted since spring, including at times when the virus’s spread was subdued. In the summer, when many hospitals were performing near-normal levels of the kinds of procedures that often result in nursing-home stays, referrals to nursing homes remained down.

Occupancy in U.S. nursing homes is down by 15%, or more than 195,000 residents, since the end of 2019, driven both by deaths and by the fall in admissions, a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal data shows. (Click To Continue Reading)

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NC changes COVID vaccine eligibility, will offer it to everyone age 65 and older

By Richard Stradling and Adam Wagner 

 
The Friday Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. has been put to use in distributing both Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to now daily 600 seniors who are in Group 1 of Phase 1b, open to patients age 65 and older. By Casey Toth

North Carolina will make COVID-19 vaccines available to anyone age 65 and older and all health care workers, regardless of whether they are exposed to coronavirus patients, the state announced Thursday.

The new eligibility rules partially match a change in guidelines announced by the federal government on Tuesday. Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said vaccinating everyone 65 and older would be simpler and make the process go faster.

Under North Carolina’s previous phased system for distributing the vaccine, people age 75 and older were eligible to get inoculated starting last week. Hospitals and counties have been scheduling their first clinics for people in that age group, and so far demand has far outstripped available supply in most areas.

Gov. Roy Cooper first announced the change Thursday to members of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. It is also now reflected on the state Department of Health and Human Services’ vaccination website, yourspotyourshot.nc.gov.

North Carolina started distributing vaccine last month for hospitals to administer to front-line employees who work with and around COVID-19 patients. A federal program, run through CVS and Walgreens, also began inoculating residents and employees of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Now, all health care personnel who work around patients are eligible.

The new criteria put people age 65 and older ahead of other front-line essential workers, such as firefighters and teachers. Under the old plan, the next groups to qualify for vaccination after people 75 and older would have been front-line health care workers and essential workers age 50 and older followed by front-line health and essential workers of any age.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state Secretary of Health and Human Services, says the state’s goal is to make the prioritization plan easier to understand and execute. North Carolina shifted to a simplified system with five groups, doing away with different phases and built-in subcategories that were to be used to prioritize who gets the vaccine.

“We know there has been more confusion than there needs to be, and so we are definitely hearing the message about simplicity and speed,” Cohen said. “That’s why we’re trying to really be clear: What we’re vaccinating right now is all health care workers and those 65 and older.”

Registration information is collected from seniors lined up in their vehicles to get their COVID vaccine shot during a drive-thru COVID vaccination clinic at North Johnston High School in Kenly, N.C., Thursday, January 14, 2021. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Competition for limited vaccine supply increases

The change will widen the pool of people now seeking vaccination, making the competition for the limited supplies of vaccine more fierce. Joan Seymour of Cary, who is 79, said this will make it even harder for her to get her shot now.

“Wake County isn’t even setting up appointments until 19 January,” Seymour wrote in an email. “Now I’ll have to contest appointments with additional millions over 65. It’s not fair.”

There are just more than a million North Carolinians between 65 and 74 years old, according to estimates from the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management. 

DHHS previously estimated that there are about 435,000 people in North Carolina older than 75. The health department also estimated that there are an additional 292,000 direct health care workers who were not initially eligible to receive vaccine.

Many doctors and others in health care support the change, said Tatyana Kelly, vice president of planning, strategy and member services for the N.C. Healthcare Association, which represents all 130 hospitals in the state.

The health problems that make people vulnerable to COVID-19 often begin at age 65, Kelly said. And, she said, only vaccinating people 75 and older leaves out a disproportionate number of people of color or with low incomes who have lower life expectancy on average.

“We really need to focus on making sure those in marginalized and under-served communities can get the vaccine quickly,” Kelly said. “You have a higher ratio of people, to be honest, who are white in the age 75 and up group.”

Kelly said there already isn’t enough vaccine to go around, and that won’t change with the new criteria. Like everyone involved in the vaccination process, she urged patience.

Since vaccine distribution began a month ago, North Carolina’s total allocation has been 706,075 first doses; both vaccines require two doses. That’s more than a million doses less than it would take to vaccinate everyone who’s now eligible.

Cohen acknowledged that vaccine remains in limited supply. She said the state is now receiving about 120,000 doses a week and that it’s working with hospitals, health departments and others to get all of it to people within seven days.

“We have less vaccine in our state than the number of people who are eligible to get it at this moment,” she said. “For those who are 65 years and older, you could get vaccine starting now, but that doesn’t mean vaccine is available for you today or an appointment is available for you today.”

Demand exceeds supply

Katye Griffin, the executive director of the N.C. Association of Local Health Directors, agreed with Cohen, warning that the high demand for vaccine is already outpacing the limited supply for those who already have made an appointment to receive the vaccine.

“We may need a week or two to incorporate newly revised groups and guidance since appointments and events have already been scheduled,” Griffin said.

In New Hanover County, for example, the health department announced that appointments were booked through Friday with people 75 and older. When the department receives next week’s shipment, it plans to open appointments to those who became eligible with Thursday’s announcement.

UNC Health set up 15 vaccination clinics in 12 counties this week and says its ability to inoculate people is limited by the availability of vaccine. Spokesman Alan Wolf said the health system will adjust its screening and scheduling system to allow those 65 to 74 to make appointments.

Those appointments were already full this week. Still, UNC applauds the state for broadening its eligibility criteria, Wolf said.

“We continue to see too many older adults who are getting really sick and ending up in our hospitals,” he said.

Allan Goldberg of Raleigh doesn’t want to join them. Goldberg, 76, says he’s a heart attack and cancer survivor who tried to schedule a vaccination at Duke Health and UNC, and learned the only appointments available were in Kinston. He thinks the vaccine rollout has been poorly handled and doesn’t see why the priorities should be changed.

“With 65-and-overs now eligible, they can have the thrill of joining me in the ‘no appointments available’ queue,” Goldberg wrote in an email.

Advice from federal government shifts

The change in guidance from the federal government caught state officials off guard on Tuesday. Cohen says the state developed its plan based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said her office would quickly review the changes.

Cooper expressed frustration Tuesday with the timing of the new directive.

“One of the continuing problems we have had with the federal government is that they have continued to shift their advice on what the priorities of the vaccine should be,” Cooper said at a press conference two hours after Azar announced the changes in Washington.

The wider criteria are part of a broader federal strategy to increase the pace of vaccinations, which have lagged nationwide.

Azar said the federal government would ship all the vaccine it currently has on hand, rather than holding some back for the second doses that both vaccines require. He said production has become reliable enough that the second doses can be shipped straight from manufacturers to the states.

Azar also announced that in two weeks the federal government will begin allocating vaccine to the states based on the number of residents 65 and older and on what percentage of a state’s previous vaccine shipments have been given out.

Azar said his department would like to see states broaden the distribution channels for vaccinations to include pharmacies and mass inoculation events.

On Thursday, the state Department of Health and Human Services announced large community vaccination events in 21 counties, including Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham, Orange, Chatham and Johnston. Links to the websites of the organizations putting on the events can be found, listed by county, at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/findyourspot.

Watch as hundreds of seniors, 75 and over, line up in their vehicles to get their COVID-19 vaccine shot at West Johnston High School in Benson, N.C., early Tuesday morning, January 12, 2021.

Read more here: https://www.newsobserver.com/news/coronavirus/article248458760.html/video-embed/amp/newsobserver/248501800/1#amp=1#storylink=cpy

People with underlying health problems must wait

North Carolina is not adopting all of the eligibility criteria recommended by the Trump administration. Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield also urged states to begin vaccinating anyone under 65 who has a documented health condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19.

Under the state’s new vaccination system, people age 16 to 64 with “high-risk medical conditions that increase risk of severe disease from COVID-19” will be eligible to get the vaccine in Group 4, after front-line workers.

John Welfare of Waxhaw said he is angry that the state decided to make people 65 and older eligible for vaccine now but not younger people like himself with underlying health problems.

“I have a highly compromised immune system and COPD, but now hundreds of thousands of otherwise healthy people just jumped in front of me while I am a sitting duck for this horrible disease,” Welfare wrote in an email. “This is grotesquely unfair and infuriating.”

Cohen ended her press conference by noting that some sort of prioritization system is necessary because of the limited supply. She said if North Carolina used all the vaccine at its disposal, only about 6% of the state’s 10.5 million residents would get at least an initial dose.

“Which means we have to do the work we’ve done all year long, which is wear a mask, stay socially distant and wash your hands often,” she said. “Please do stay home and only go out for essential business. Remember, there is a lot of virus here in North Carolina.”

 
Members of the North Carolina National Guard help Forsyth County Department of Public Health and its residents with the COVID-19 vaccination as the NCNG assists the state's health departments to expand coronavirus immunization efforts. By North Carolina National Guard

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Caregiver charged with involuntary manslaughter, neglect

By Francis Scarcella

A Ranshaw woman employed as a home health caregiver is charged with involuntary manslaughter and neglect, according to Coal Township police.

Debora Avellino, 57, of Webster Street, was arrested and brought before Shamokin District Judge John Gembic on Tuesday on the charges of felony neglect of care of a person she was responsible to provide care for and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter after police said Avellino caused the death of Vincent Avellino, 83, because she failed to provide care for him.

Coal Township police say they were contacted by the county Area Agency on Aging after an October incident that saw Vincent Avellino brought to the Geisinger Shamokin Area Community Hospital by Debora Avellino for a report of a skin tag on Vincent Avellino's body that had developed in the course of three to four days.

An emergency room doctor told police the wound Vincent Avellino had could not have developed over the course of a few days and that it had to take several weeks to develop to the level of severity it did, police said. The doctor told officers if the wound had been treated immediately, it would have healed, police said.

An emergency room nurse who was working the night Vincent Avellino was brought in agreed with the doctor and told officers the wound was there for more than a few days, police said.

Police say Vincent Avellino needed emergency surgery and the doctor on-call referred the case to the county's aging office because it appeared to be severe neglect. Vincent Avellino died in early November.

Police say on Oct. 26 they spoke with a representative of the aging office who told officers Vincent Avellino was moved to Geisinger Medical Center, in Danville, because of complications after receiving the surgery.

Coal Township police arrested Debora Avellino on Tuesday, and Gembic sent her to Northumberland County Prison on $20,000 cash bail. 

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Update on Nichelle Nichols’ Fight for Control of Her Estate

Actress Nichelle Nichols arrives at the premiere of Neon's "Colossal" at the Vista Theatre

Since 2018, Nichelle Nichols, the iconic actress who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, has been entangled in a legal battle over control of her estate. Kyle Johnson, her only child, claims that his mother’s former manager, Gilbert Bell, committed elder abuse by taking advantage of her diminished capacity to steal her money and control her finances. Bell claims that Johnson has been intimidating him and Nichols for years and that Johnson is attempting to sell Nichols’s properties out from under her.

The allegations have led to a complicated, multi-year battle over who will control Nichols’ estate, specifically, the properties she owns in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles.

According to the California judicial system’s website, a conservatorship is a legal arrangement where a person or group of people is placed in charge of another person’s financial dealings. Conservatorships are granted when someone is deemed incapable of responsibly managing their own financial affairs.

According to Vulture, conservatorships have made headlines in the past few years because some high-profile celebrities, like Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes, have had conservatorships established. Both Spears and Bynes were deemed unfit to manage their finances and their careers after having mental health crises.

Johnson petitioned a Los Angeles County Court to grant a conservatorship over his mother in 2018 because she had been diagnosed with dementia. According to his countersuit against Bell, Johnson also filed for conservatorship so that he could prevent Bell from continuing to control his mother’s finances and career.

Nichols’ legal battle became headline news again over the summer when her sister, Marian Smothers, started a GoFundMe to raise money for Nichols’ legal fees. The various suits and countersuits filed by Bell and Johnson have been tied up in the legal system for over two years. There are multiple lawsuits involved in the legal battle in California.

The GoFundMe page included a long note from Smothers, which laid out the allegations against Bell. The page contained a streamlined version of the allegations included in Johnson’s countersuit, which was filed just a few weeks before the GoFundMe went live.

According to Indiewire, Bell’s lawyer, William Bowen, responded to both the countersuit and the GoFundMe. In a written statement, Bowen refuted the claims made in the GoFundMe summary and the countersuit. He also maintained that Bell had never defrauded Nichols, stolen from her, or committed elder abuse.

The latest legal action in the case came in November 2020. City News Service reported that Johnson submitted a petition in the state of New Mexico for his conservatorship over Nichols to be valid in that state. Johnson, who lived in New Mexico previously, moved back to the state with his mother after his permanent conservatorship was granted. The move was approved by a California judge in August 2020.

Since the conservatorship was granted by a judge in California, it needs to be reviewed by the New Mexico courts to make it valid in that state. Nichols’ sister, the same one who started the GoFundMe, submitted documents to the court stating her support for the move. Smothers wrote that Johnson’s move back to New Mexico was best for both Johnson and Nichols as Johnson had an established community in the state that could help him care for his mother. She also stated that Nichols’ other family members were not able to care for her due to health and familial issues, so Johnson was the best person to be her primary caregiver.

However, the legal battles still underway in California could create problems for Johnson’s petition to the New Mexico courts. A friend of Nichols’, Angelique Fawcett, initially opposed Johnson becoming the conservator of Nichols’s estate, as she told People in 2019. She sided with Bell in the legal battles between him and Johnson, going so far as to file a petition to stop the conservatorship. She retracted that challenge after Johnson agreed to let her see Nichols regularly.

However, Fawcett has claimed that Johnson began preventing her from seeing Nichols in 2019. Through her lawyer, she requested that the court enforce her right to visit Nichols. Since this piece of the legal battle over Nichols’ affairs has not been resolved, it could pose problems for the conservatorship case in New Mexico as Fawcett no longer has access to these visits.

In November, a California judge declined to rule on Fawcett’s request, leaving it to the New Mexico courts.

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Protected or Prisoners: How you can help honor the memory of JoAnn Bashinsky

By Apryl Marie Fogel

Photo Credit: Facebook, Joann Bashinsky.

I’ve been in and around politics for nearly 2 decades in one capacity or another. I’ve learned that the policy changes that really matter and are greatly needed are usually not the ones that get the attention they deserve. We as a nation have a habit of talking about legislation and policymaking in a vacuum. It is as if the only issues that matter are the ones that make headlines or are good for campaign slogans and speeches. Education, taxes, regulatory reform, protecting the 1st and 2nd amendment, or whatever the headline-grabbing topic of the day gets all the attention.

Ethics reform here in Alabama is one that (with good reason) has been discussed a lot in recent years. Candidates run on the topics that make for good water cooler or dinner table conversation. The laws related to court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships have probably never made that list for any candidate anywhere. Yet the cone of silence surrounding it doesn’t make it any less important for those who need the system to protect them, their health, and their finances, or those abused by it. Moreover, the lack of attention lets fraud and abuse run rampant throughout the system, and federal and legal experts studying the situation predict it will only worsen as more of our population ages. 

Let’s face it; we’re all guilty of perpetuating the problem of ignoring the people and issues that should be a no brainer to fix and protect. Now is as good of a time as any to change that. This is the 8th part of a series meant to bring attention to this policy issue, but I want to circle back to the beginning before I get into it.

For those who have not heard, it is with great sadness that I share that last week, Joann Bashinsky (known by many as Mama B or Mrs. B) passed away and was laid to rest. Mrs. B was the woman whose courage and kindness in fighting her court-ordered conservatorship was detailed in several of the first written editorials of this series and discussed on many of my frequent radio appearances while hosting shows throughout the state. 

I often described her as “fiery,” and that’s what she was. When she found herself in a court-ordered conservatorship, she had many tools that not everyone else in the same situation are afforded. First, she had the will and courage to fight it. Most have either but not both. In the audio recordings she made that were a part of my first story in this series, she questioned the assumptions being made about her and her health, and she stood her ground.

She had the wherewithal to know she couldn’t go at it alone against a system that mainly operates in the dark. She told her story to anyone who would listen, and she gave several media interviews to get her story heard. 

In the other cases I’ve investigated or am currently investigating, family members or lawyers who speak to me do so confidentially, off the record, or in the background out of fear that direct media coverage naming the parties involved will upset either or both the court-ordered conservator or the judge assigned to the case. 

Their fears are not necessarily unreasonable. Based on my research and the work of advocacy groups who shine a light on this subject, the issue of retribution is commonplace. A frequently cited act of retribution for those who speak out or fight back against the system is increased prescription dosages or new drugs added to a ward’s medication routine. Sometimes these medicines are meant to leave the individual confused, weak, or sleepy. This is exactly the type of situation that aides the case against them and contributes to the proof that an individual cannot care for themselves. The second thing that can and too frequently happens to those objecting to their cases is isolation. Wards are kept from their loved ones especially if those loved ones are objecting to the courts actions. These are a powerful method of silencing wards and their families. 

Unlike Mrs. B, and in the only other public case I’ve ever heard of in the mainstream media, Britney Spears, the majority of those under court-ordered conservatorships find themselves facing an uphill battle to win back their rights with no media coverage whatsoever.

I’ve spoken to lawmakers on every level from city, county, state, and federal, who had no idea how the system in its current form exists or how it works. This is a fact that is chilling given the tremendous amount of power those involved, from judges to conservators, guardian ad litems, and others within it, have.

Though there have recently been several documentaries, including an episode of Dirty Money on Netflix, the overwhelming majority of seniors and their families don’t get to detail the often shocking stories of families torn apart, exorbitant legal fees, and other conditions most would find distressing.

One of the biggest challenges to the publication of these stories is that few people are willing, and even fewer are able, to succinctly share their stories. Most cases involve long and arduous tales of family dysfunction, sibling in-fighting, a lot of he-said-she-said, and contradicting stories that go in circles and are time-consuming to unravel. These hard to follow stories and oftentimes too wild to be true stories are facts that predators within the system take advantage of. Courts and court-ordered appointees claim they’re “protecting” the wards even when said ward has family that can and should be their protectors. 

As I stated above, Mrs. B’s case was different in that she was willing and able to tell her story to anyone who would listen. I watched from afar after my series began, and I moved on to other cases as story after story came out on Mrs. B, knowing she was making a difference with each one. She was adamant that what happened to her was wrong—an opinion upheld by the Alabama State Supreme Court.  The court’s ruling gives me hope for others in the same situation if only their cases make it to them.

The last time I spoke to Mrs. B was a brief moment on the day the court ruled in favor of her on her case. I told her that day that I had spoken to someone close to a family going through similar circumstances who intended to use the ruling on her case as a defense in theirs, as they too were denied legal representation. She told me she was glad to know that her efforts would be making a difference and gave me a message to tell them not to give up.

I promised her that even though her case was over (or so I thought), I would continue investigating and reporting contested court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships as I had been doing since the issue was brought to my attention. This series has never just been about Mrs. B. It has been about the broken system and is meant to shine a light on the system that has for far too long operated in the dark. Mrs. B’s case provided a strong foundation for fighting for all those who have found themselves and their loved ones in similar circumstances and the policy changes that can prevent future cases like theirs from happening again. 

Though most wards are under such strict lockdowns I’ve been unable to speak to them directly, I will always remember the sounds of exasperation in Mrs. B’s voice as she described feeling betrayed by those who she ultimately fought until the day she died. 

Mrs. B is the third person who has passed away as I’ve been investigating and reporting their case or their family’s efforts. Many will remember the family involved in another case I reported on, that of the father whose daughter was fighting to get him out of a conservatorship that she described as going against his wishes. He passed away several months ago. Again, my heart ached when his daughter texted me the news.

I was in the early stages of investigating another case when that ward passed away. Each call or text telling me about the death of someone whose rights were seemingly denied, whose assets potentially stolen, or family weaknesses exploited, has had a profound impact on me personally. I’ve gotten to know the stories of those involved and know that some simple policy changes could change a great deal. 

So that’s what today’s story is, a promise to you, the reader, to continue telling the stories of those who find themselves in these circumstances and highlight the policy implications of them. Here are a few places lawmakers can start:

  1. No one should have to go through this system alone. Every potential ward needs both a guardian ad litem and an attorney of their own to speak on their behalf. 
  2. We’re discussing the rights and freedom of Americans. Every court proceeding needs to be recorded either by a professional transcriptionist or by audio recording. It is unconscionable that courts are operating without proper record-keeping in a day and age where digital records are so easy to keep. 
  3. Required training for guardian ad litems charged with advocating for a senior or potential ward
  4. More transparency and accountability. I’ve been seeking records from Jefferson County, AL, related to their two court-ordered conservators for 8 months now. That is unacceptable. 
  5. No ward should be able to be isolated from their loved ones. 
  6. No court should allow a ward’s finances to be managed in secret by skirting the law and using a power of attorney to hide their actions (more on this in my next piece).

It’s notable that in February of 2003, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, which at the time included Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, held a hearing on the case of Mollie Orshansky (aka Mrs. Poverty for her role as the economist who shaped and defined the way the U.S. government describes poverty). Throughout that hearing, lawmaker after lawmaker discussed the growing system and ways it was being exploited. That is the type of discussion we need to have in the Alabama legislature this year! Join me in calling for it. Together we can make sure that those who need to be protected are while making sure everyone in the system has their needs met, their voice heard, and their rights protected. 

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Caretaker Charged With Attacking Man With Autism And Intellectual Disabilities

 

A caretaker in Allegheny County is charged with attacking a man with autism and intellectual disabilities. KDKA's Jennifer Borrasso has more. 



Source:

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Experimental Alzheimer’s Drug Donanemab Yields Promising Results in Phase 2 Trial

Courtesy: Eli Lilly/LinkedIn
By Nicholas Chan

While Biogen’s experimental Alzheimer’s treatment aducanumab faced yet another snag recently in its convoluted path toward FDA approval, other drugs companies are catching up: Eli Lilly and Co. announced on Monday that its investigational drug donanemab showed promise in a mid-stage clinical trial for patients with early symptoms of Alzheimer’s. 

The initial results from the drug’s Phase 2 clinical trial provide much needed hope for the Alzheimer’s community, which has seen setback after setback in drug development. Alzheimer’s drug trials have had a 99 percent failure rate, and many drug companies have bailed from developing therapies for Alzheimer’s. 

According to the Lilly’s news release, donanemab slowed the decline of cognition and ability to perform activities of daily living by 32 percent in participants who received the therapy, compared to those who received placebo, meeting its primary goal of statistically significant slowing of decline over 18 months. 

“The positive results we have obtained today give us confidence in donanemab and support its rapid and deep plaque clearance for the potential treatment of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientific officer and president of Lilly Research Laboratories, said in a news release. 

The Phase 2 clinical trial involved 272 participants, which the Wall Street Journal reported to be a relatively small number of volunteers. Lilly said full trial results will be presented at a medical meeting and submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed clinical journal.

While there are FDA-approved drugs that can ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and improve quality of life, they do not target the hallmarks of the disease: beta-amyloid plaques and tau pathology. The Alzheimer’s community have long awaited a therapy that can alter the course of the disease. 

In a quest to develop an effective treatment, an increasing number of scientists and drug developers are turning to immunotherapies, like donanemab, aducanumab, as well as BAN2401 jointly developed by Eisai and Biogen. Each of these experimental Alzheimer’s treatments are designed to treat the disease by boosting people’s immune systems in a way that cuts down on beta-amyloid plaques. Immunotherapy has shown success in cancer treatment, and researchers hope that it may be effective to target neurodegeneration. Like aducanumab, donanemab targets beta-amyloid, a protein known to aggregate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. According to the company, donanemab targets a specific kind of beta-amyloid known as N3pG which can be rapidly cleared, allowing for short-term treatment of Alzheimer’s symptoms.

However, there are still questions about beta-amyloid as a target: Biogen’s aducanumab has been in the limelight recently as FDA advisers overwhelmingly said in November the company had failed to prove that the drug is an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. Now, the drug awaits approval by the agency.

Lilly’s drug could be proof of concept. Chief Science Officer at the Alzheimer’s Association Maria C. Carrillo welcomed the initial results. 

“On behalf of the more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association is encouraged by these preliminary data,” Carrillo said. “We look forward to seeing the results of a second, larger Phase 2 trial, which is currently recruiting.”

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Video Of Nurse Singing To Cancer Patient Goes Viral

 
An emotional video of a Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse singing to a terminal cancer patient has gone viral.
 
Source:

"I Care A Lot"

“I Care A Lot” (February 19)

Peter Dinklage and Rosamund Pike in “I Care A Lot.” —Netflix

Following positive reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival, Netflix purchased the rights to “I Care A Lot,” a dark comedy filmed in Massachusetts in 2019 about Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”), who cons her way into legal guardianship of senior citizens and drains them of their savings. After assuming guardianship of another elderly woman, Marla finds out that the woman she’s trying to swindle has someone in her life (Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”) who is as ruthless and unscrupulous as Marla herself. “I Care A Lot” was filmed in Boston, Braintree, Dedham, Medfield, Millis, Natick, Rockport, Watertown, Wayland, and Wellesley, and debuts on Netflix on Feb. 19.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Lawsuit names Peyton couple in alleged scam to capture inheritance from a “vulnerable person”

by  Pam Zubeck


Cheryl Shega
never was “right,” her family members say.

The oldest of three children, she “functioned at a much lower level” than her two siblings, her brother, Greg Shega, said in a court affidavit.

She held down an auto parts clerk job for only a few years in the 1970s and didn’t cook, clean, do laundry or wash dishes. Rather, she relied on her mother for all that, until her mom died unexpectedly in 2015. She continued to live with her father until he, too, passed away two years later.

Refusing her siblings’ help, Cheryl lived alone in her parents’ Hibbing, Minnesota home where somewhere along the line she came into contact online with a woman from Peyton she believed to be her long-lost cousin.

Over a period of years, that woman and her husband, Laura and Stephen Craig, gained Cheryl’s confidence and persuaded her to, without authority, name Laura as beneficiary of certificates of deposit held in a trust her parents had established years earlier for the benefit of their children, Cheryl’s brother and sister say in a lawsuit against the Craigs filed in Minnesota in July. The certificates of deposit (CDs) were valued at about $250,000.

Cheryl died on May 27, 2019, at age 67 at the hospital she was taken to after she was found unconscious in her squalid home, which was crammed with unwashed clothing and mountains of trash.

Her siblings, Greg of Arizona and Nancy Weiser of Utah, were surprised to learn their frugal parents, who appeared to own little, had squirreled away that much money. They were more surprised to find Cheryl had designated Laura as the sole beneficiary.

Within days of her death, her siblings’ attorney, David Crosby, notified the American Bank of the North to freeze the assets, because Cheryl was considered a “vulnerable adult” under Minnesota law due to “long standing medical, physical and emotional infirmities and dysfunctions,” Crosby said in a letter to the bank.

Ignoring that, the bank transferred the assets less than a month later to Laura.

Greg and Nancy doubt Laura has any relation to the family. They believe she somehow became acquainted online with their emotionally needy and unstable sister who searched relentlessly for the cousin who had disappeared more than 40 years ago after joining a spiritual sect.

Cheryl Shega at the family home.

The Indy has reported previously on cases of guardians and conservators taking advantage of incapacitated persons they are assigned to protect. Some pilfer millions of dollars from estates in a system that lacks scrutiny and accountability. Yet, prosecutions are rare.

Different from those cases, Cheryl didn’t have a legally appointed guardian or conservator but was persuaded by a relative stranger who gained her confidence to name her as an heir to a good portion of the family trust assets.

That still could be considered exploitation, says Rick Black, who set up the nonprofit Center for Estate Administration Reform (CEAR) after he spent $1.3 million in legal fees disputing a guardianship of his father-in-law but still lost to the “predator.”

“Financial and contractual decisions that are completely inconsistent with lifelong practices or written intentions often occur when in isolation,” he says via email.

But the Craigs’ attorney, Charles Shreffler of West St. Paul, Minnesota, says via email that Laura, 59, who he says truly is Cheryl’s long-lost cousin, “did nothing to influence Cheryl,” made no moves to hornswoggle her into naming her as a beneficiary, and didn’t know she’d been named a beneficiary until after Cheryl died.

Noting the beneficiary assignments occurred over a period of 14 months, Shreffler says, “That length of time demonstrates that Cheryl made these decisions deliberately, freely, intentionally.”

No one ever examined Cheryl Shega professionally to determine a diagnosis, but her sister-in-law, Amy Shega, says she lived as a dependent until her parents died, was difficult to deal with, especially if she didn’t get her way, and didn’t seem to feel emotional attachments.

“She never saw reality,” she says. “You could not relate to her. You could never disagree with her.”

After she died and the family went through the house, they discovered a book hidden in their mother’s room about how to live with a child that’s diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

“They tried to hide that because they were embarrassed by it,” Amy says.

According to the lawsuit, people acquainted with Cheryl knew she suffered from mental illness. She was moody, childlike, hung doll clothes in her closet, spent her time sleeping and watching soap operas and had no social activities outside her home.

Cheryl physically attacked her mother and brother on different occasions, Amy says, but wasn’t placed in residential care, the siblings assumed, because their parents couldn’t afford it.

In fact, over the years Amy and her husband, Greg, paid to replace all the home’s appliances for his parents, renovated the bathrooms, replaced the roof, provided vehicle maintenance and built a new deck onto the house, believing the couple was without financial means to do so, according to court documents. Also, Greg’s sister, Nancy, pitched in to provide maintenance on the house and planted and maintained gardens.

After their mother, Charlene, died in 2015, the siblings worried about Cheryl and their dad, Ed, but signs pointed to a stable situation.

Greg and Nancy set up automatic pay for bills, drawn on a bank account linked to the trust, which they believed contained about $25,000, though Cheryl went to the bank and was told “there was a lot of money in a savings account,” she told her sister. Both siblings took turns visiting Cheryl and their dad every other month, Amy says.

Then, Ed Shega became ill, and a dispute arose surrounding his care. Cheryl insisted he not be placed in a skilled nursing facility because there was no money to pay for it, a claim that, Greg and Nancy later came to recognize, was out of character for a person who had never shown interest in financial matters.

“There was a social worker working with the family,” Amy tells the Indy by phone. “She was really afraid for Ed’s safety. Nancy and Greg started the process of getting Ed moved.” That meant a court battle, but they prepared for it. Five complaints had been filed by social workers regarding Cheryl’s negligence in caring for her dad.

Cheryl Shega, right, with family members.


Problem was, Amy says, “The courts didn’t move fast enough, and he died.”

After the family buried their father in May 2017, they visited Cheryl in the family home and found it in order.

“Everything was good,” Amy says. “The house was clean.”

Although Cheryl had proven incapable of cooking and cleaning, the siblings decided to allow her to live alone. “We would never, ever, ever have put Cheryl in a [care] home,” she says. “One, she was volatile. She would have been a danger to be around if she was confined. She was happy if she was able to live the rest of her life in her home. It would have been more cruel to force her into a facility.”

Despite periodic visits and lots of phone calls from her siblings — sometimes multiple calls a week — two years later, things fell apart.

On May 16, 2019, Nancy didn’t get an answer when she called Cheryl, so she phoned a member of the church Cheryl had once attended, who agreed to check on her.

The friend arrived about the same time as police, whom Nancy had called when Cheryl didn’t answer her phone.

They found Cheryl collapsed on the floor. She was conscious but said she couldn’t walk. An ambulance took her to a hospital where she lived for 12 days. The death certificate lists cause of death as severe malnutrition, catatonia and bowel obstruction.

They also found the house filthy, the windows draped with blankets, dead mice and rats throughout, cat feces, piles of trash that indicated she’d been living on cake mix, ice cream, Dr Pepper, Eggo waffles and Little Debbie snacks, stacks of dirty clothing on all the beds and bags of junk mail she’d saved. (She had a practice of leaving money for neighbors who dropped off food on her porch.)

“In two years’ time, some of the doors to the rooms, you couldn’t open them,” Amy says. “She still hadn’t learned to use the washing machine.” Amy reports Nancy and Greg during their visits had left sticky notes everywhere with their phone numbers and instructions on how to do certain tasks.

Amy says Greg and Nancy hadn’t visited Cheryl for about 18 months but were in touch with her weekly by phone. “They had no idea that she had gotten that bad,” Amy tells the Indy via email. “Nancy was in communication with members of the church and they too had no idea Cheryl had gotten that bad. Cheryl wouldn’t let anyone in the house so that prevented everyone from seeing the reality of it.”

Though contact between Cheryl and Laura had dropped off, Laura phoned Cheryl 24 times from May 8 to May 28 without reaching her. But Laura never contacted authorities for a welfare check, the lawsuit says.

When Cheryl was admitted to the hospital that day, caregivers described her as “totally disoriented” and having a “loss of touch with reality, expressing paranoid thoughts,” while “refusing to eat, spitting out oral medications and not communicating verbally.”

On May 20, Laura called the hospital and suggested Cheryl suffered from a simple sinus infection and was an active and independent person. She also advised the staff to keep Cheryl away from her siblings, because they were only interested in the money, the lawsuit says.

“She [Laura] explained that Cheryl has had a lifetime of animosity with her siblings, Nancy and Greg,” the medical record states. “She also explained that Cheryl has lived in fear of Nancy sticking her in a nursing home and cashing out the house and the trust to receive the financial benefits.”

Upon her death, Nancy and Greg went to the bank to find out how much money was available for her final arrangements and were astonished to learn the bank held assets valued at about $250,000.

The lawsuit notes that Ed and Charlene Shega established a trust in 2009 in which they placed all their assets, including their home. They named Cheryl the primary beneficiary and the other two children, Greg and Nancy, as successor beneficiaries, meaning they would inherit any assets remaining after Cheryl’s death.

The lawsuit claims Cheryl didn’t have authority to change beneficiaries. But even as Cheryl asserted there was no money for her father’s nursing care, she had assigned Laura Craig as beneficiary of four CDs.

Ed Shega, Cheryl’s father, at a nursing facility.

The first CD was assigned to Laura in August 2016 before Cheryl’s father died. The other three were assigned in September and October 2017, after her father died. The lawsuit says that two weeks after one of the CDs had been signed over to Laura that September, Laura called Cheryl on Oct. 11, 2017. They spoke for 13 minutes, the lawsuit says. On that same date, Cheryl changed the beneficiary to Laura on another CD. Thirteen days later, Cheryl changed the beneficiary on the last CD.

Given her limitations and disinterest in financial matters, those actions were out of character for Cheryl, the lawsuit contends. American Bank employee Geri Chapman helped her make those beneficiary changes without contacting the other siblings, the lawsuit contends. Amy Shega says American Bank claimed it didn’t know the trust existed, though she says the bank had helped Charlene and Ed Shega set it up.

After Cheryl died, Greg and Nancy discovered she had been searching for lost relatives for years via the internet, including sending emails to people in Slovenia and Croatia. In 2012, she’d sent a message to Laura Craig, whom she believed was her cousin, Laura Johnson, who left Minnesota some 40 years before. In it, she asked, “Are you my cousin?”

Craig responded and quizzed Cheryl about their families, asking for photos and telling her to keep their communications secret.

In a Feb. 19, 2012, email to Laura, Cheryl wrote, “You don’t have to worry. I respect your privacy and will never tell anyone where you are or that I am in contact with you.”

On Aug. 13, 2012, Cheryl wrote to Laura, telling her that her father, Cheryl’s uncle, had died. She closed the message saying, “I am so thrilled to be a part of your life. Don’t worry, if anyone wants to find you, they will have to do their research just like I did.”

Laura responded on Sept. 9, 2012, thanking her for the family news, noting the two had spoken on the phone and asking her how old she was.

In another message, dated March 12, 2018, Laura wrote of her Christian faith and said, “You are so much a part of our family!”

The lawsuit casts doubt on whether Laura Craig truly is Laura Johnson, and there appears to be no evidence Laura and Cheryl met in person after making contact.

After Cheryl’s mom died in 2015, her online dialogue with Craig became more frequent, the lawsuit says.

It also came to light later, through caregivers, that when her father was failing, Cheryl spoke frequently to a relative from Colorado by phone.

“What we do not know however,” the lawsuit says, “is what Laura was telling Cheryl during their phone calls.”

Emails discovered after Cheryl’s death showed that, during the time she resisted placing her father in a nursing facility, she frequently communicated with Laura via emails.

Cheryl also threw a temper tantrum and threatened to kill herself when her brother asked his dad if he could see a copy of the trust.

Inside the Shega home as it was found after Cheryl died in May 2019. 


“In hindsight,” the lawsuit says, “it has become evident that Laura, with the assistance of her alleged husband, Stephen, were the driving force behind Cheryl’s new focus on finances and attempts at conserving money.”

As previously noted, Greg and Nancy didn’t know their parents had accumulated significant funds. Besides the CDs, assets were held by other institutions. Those institutions obliged the family’s request, through an attorney, to not pay out any sums to Laura.

But despite two such notices, American Bank paid $247,188 from the CDs to Laura after she hired a lawyer who wrote to the bank asking for the money, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit seeks more than $1 million in damages alleging undue influence, exploitation of a vulnerable adult, unjust enrichment, tortious interference with the estate, deception/fraud, intentional misrepresentation, negligence and aiding and abetting the exploitation of a vulnerable adult.

“How could the bank do that [change beneficiaries] and not know she was mentally incompetent? That money was there for her [Cheryl] to use to live on, but the trust clearly states that she cannot change the beneficiaries,” Amy tells the Indy by phone.

Moreover, the trust designated all three children as having powers of attorney over their parents’ health care and assets, she says.

Laura and Stephen Craig have filed a motion to dismiss, contending the court lacks jurisdiction over them and “the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted against these defendants because ... the complaint fails to allege any facts or plead a cause of action under the Multiparty Accounts Act....”

Likewise, the bank is seeking dismissal, alleging bank officials didn’t know the assets were part of a trust. In its answer to the lawsuit, American Bank states, “Any actions taken by Defendants were based on legitimate business consideration and were done without the intent to injure or harm Plaintiff” and that Cheryl’s estate contributed to any damages sustained by the estate by its own actions or inactions. The bank and its employees declined to provide the Indy with a response.

A family photo of Ed and Charlene Shega, seated, and their children, from left, Cheryl, Greg and Nancy Weiser.


The estate countered there’s ample evidence to prove the lawsuit’s claims, citing as an example the “13-minute phone call ... when Cheryl made Laura a beneficiary of one of the certificates of deposit.”

A decision on the motions to dismiss is due in January.

In a five-page response to Indy questions, the Craigs’ attorney, Shreffler, alleged the lawsuit is “filled with innuendos.

“What facts are there to support the claim that either Laura or Stephen influenced Cheryl?” he adds. “The Complaint alleges that Cheryl had been close to her family until she reconnected with Laura, and that the only possible explanation for Cheryl’s difficulties with her siblings is Laura’s undue influence through telephone calls. That theory is undermined by actual facts...”

Among those, the Craigs claim:

•Laura knew nothing about being named beneficiary on the CDs until contacted by the Shega trust’s attorney in June 2019. She did know she was made beneficiary on another investment, however, according to text messages between Cheryl and Laura.

•There was tension between Cheryl and her siblings. Now, Shreffler says, “she [Nancy] wants you to believe that Cheryl was vulnerable and that they had a close relationship.... The essence of being a ‘vulnerable adult’ is not being able to take care of one’s activities of daily living. Nancy’s comments in the medical records reveal that she knew Cheryl had been taking care of herself.”

•In a handwritten 2016 Christmas letter, Cheryl sent Laura a copy of a stock statement, saying, “As you can see you are the beneficiary.... Keep this safe it tells you how to contact Allete [Inc.].” Shreffler considers this “more evidence Cheryl made these decisions on her own.” Laura is unaware of what became of that stock after Cheryl’s death.

•Asked if Laura truly is Cheryl’s cousin, Shreffler notes when Laura called Nancy when Cheryl was hospitalized, Nancy never said, “Who are you?” Rather, “She knew she was talking to her cousin Laura,” he says. Also, Laura filed an affidavit with the court in August 2020 stating she is, in fact, Cheryl’s cousin and possesses a birth certificate to prove it.

•Asked about the 13-minute phone call, Shreffler says Laura “doesn’t remember what she and Cheryl talked about.” But he adds the span of time — from August 2016 to October 2017 — during which Cheryl changed beneficiaries on the CDs “demonstrates that Cheryl made these decisions deliberately, freely, intentionally.”

Ed and Charlene Shega on their wedding day.


•Cheryl told Laura there was a “lifetime of animosity” between her and her siblings and that Laura “did not try to isolate Cheryl from her siblings.”

Moreover, Shreffler notes, “There is no evidence that Cheryl lacked capacity” and that Cheryl couldn’t be considered “vulnerable.”

To underscore Laura’s innocence of any attempts to unduly influence Cheryl, Shreffler notes that while Cheryl told Laura about the stock investment, she didn’t tell her about the CDs.

“Whether it was right or fair that Cheryl picked her cousin over her siblings as her beneficiary is nobody’s business except Cheryl’s,” he wrote. “The evidence shows that Cheryl made those decisions freely, and provides some insight into why she made those decisions. The Craig’s [sic] have done nothing wrong.”

According to Nolo.com, an Internet legal website, it’s up to a complaining relative to prove that a will or other instrument was written under undue influence. To do that, they must show:

•Property is left to a person in a way that defies normal circumstances, such as close family members being left out in favor of others, without an obvious explanation.

•The benefactor was particularly dependent on, or trusted, the person who exerted influence. (This is sometimes called a “confidential relationship” between them.)

•Illness or frailty made the benefactor susceptible to undue influence.

•The influencer took advantage of the benefactor and benefited from the change.

In a North Dakota case, an elderly woman changed her will to name a friend as beneficiary to 35 percent of her estate, unlike her previous will. Witnesses testified in the 2011 case that the friend controlled the woman’s visitors and tried to ostracize family members from the woman, who suffered from dementia. In that case, the court ruled the friend had exerted undue influence and invalidated the will in question.

Rick Black, who founded CEAR says in an email that “trusted advisor” and “caregiver” frauds involving vulnerable adults are fairly common, especially when the person can be isolated from others.

“In our years of studying these crimes it is clear there are many predators among us who actively seek out vulnerable individuals of wealth in society,” Black tells the Indy in an email. “They groom their victims over months and years with the specific intent to ultimately defraud the very people they claim to love and serve.”

Amy Mason, an attorney representing the Shega siblings, tells the Indy by phone that Cheryl’s case is unusual, because it involves alleged undue influence across state lines. Normally, she says, the influencer and the vulnerable person see one another frequently. In Cheryl’s case, she never met with Laura during her seven years of contacts by emails, letters, texts and phone calls.

Cheryl was susceptible, Mason says, because, “Cheryl was very isolated. She didn’t have any friends.”

In a 1984 case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that undue influence is normally shown through circumstantial evidence that supports a theory that opportunity existed, the influencer participated in the preparation of the will of the vulnerable person, development of a confidential relationship, disinheritance of those whom the decedent probably would have remembered in a will otherwise and exercise of influence or persuasion.

Such cases, Mason acknowledges, are “tough” to win.

“From an outsider looking in, you don’t see all that’s happening,” she says. “Someone needs to understand how someone like Cheryl would be influenced compared to the average individual. She was a loner and lived in a fantasy world.”

Mason likened the situation to dating site scams that persuade lonely elderly women to transfer thousands of dollars to a stranger, because they wrongly think they’re in a relationship.

“If not for Laura misguiding her, if not for Laura and her husband trying to convince her she was all alone and they were the only ones who loved her and cared for her, she [Cheryl] would not have made these changes,” Mason says. “I believe that Laura was very calculated and knew exactly what she was doing.”

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