Elder abuse has been called the silent epidemic, but not all cases are what they seem. When a 90 year old gentleman (Frank) gifted $100,000 to his companion of 25 years (Marilyn), he intended to provide for her based on their loving relationship, as his estate documents left everything to his children. When he was later diagnosed with dementia, and his health failed, Marilyn took care of him 24/7, including dressing, bathing and feeding him. Even when he became verbally abusive, she cared for him because she “loved him and because he needed me, and I needed him even as he was. I was happy to be with him.” You see Frank’s family moved next door to Marilyn’s in 1956, each with 3 children, with Marilyn’s husband having died in 1959, and Frank’s wife in 1983. After a year of friendship they became more than friends, and at the ages of 69 and 61 Frank and Marilyn began a romantic relationship that lasted 25 years, with Frank moving into Marilyn’s home in 1985 and selling his own house.
During the next 24 years Marilyn and Frank lived as husband and wife, although they chose not to remarry, and shared everything, enjoying a devoted, “idyllic” relationship. Even Frank’s Alzheimer’s and failing health at age 91 didn’t dim the flames of devotion that Marilyn had for him. That all came crashing down, however, after Marilyn at the age of 85 suffered a stroke and was hospitalized, and Frank’s children placed him in a care facility in September of 2009. Marilyn stayed devoted to Frank, visiting every day, and was observed by the facility’s Director to be “extremely devoted to Frank . . . they were always holding each other and touching . . . Frank would light up when she was there; and he appeared ‘very happy’ to spend time with Marilyn. Marilyn would also take Frank out of the facility every day for several hours to visit local attractions . . . Frank loved those trips: ‘he beamed and was so appreciative’”. But around the same time Frank’s daughter Catherine learned she had been named successor trustee and had her father’s power of attorney. Catherine got letters from two doctors certifying that her father was incapacitated, taking over control of his finances. When she learned that the value of one account was substantially reduced from 10 years earlier she was “shocked and astonished”, and didn’t buy Marilyn’s explanation that Frank had gifted her $100,000 to provide for her since she was not a beneficiary of his trust or will. What happened next is astonishing, as reported in the case of “Marilyn W. vs. Catherine H., et al”, CA4/1, decided by the California Court of Appeal on Dec. 15, 2014.
Shortly after learning of the $100,000 transfer, Catherine told the Director of her father’s facility that she was not to allow Marilyn to visit her father any more. She asserted the authority of her power of attorney to keep Marilyn away from Frank, saying that “they were not married and she was just a girlfriend”. The Director valiantly stood by Frank and Marilyn, testifying that “the visit restriction was absolutely not going to happen, I was interested in Frank’s well-being and since he had already indicated to me that Marilyn was somebody that he loved and felt deeply about, I was not going to restrict her visits to the facility.” But then Catherine took her father out of the facility, cut off all communication with Marilyn, and refused to tell her where Frank was! Marilyn was devastated, losing her paramour and companion of 25 years. She would never see him again.
Frank was never the same. Catherine tried to take care of him at her house but couldn’t handle him after only 5 weeks. She then placed him in a dementia facility, where he lasted only 11 days before he was involuntarily committed to a hospital on a psychiatric hold due to his anger issues. After that his children placed him in another Alzheimer’s facility for a short time before he was hospitalized, and died. Marilyn was not told of his death, and could not even attend the funeral of the man she loved for 25 years.
The situation went from bad to worse when Frank’s children sued Marilyn one month before their father’s death to recoup any monies that he gave her. They alleged undue influence, breach of fiduciary duty, financial elder abuse, constructive fraud, conversion, and rescission and restitution. They claimed that during the 2000’s, “Frank experienced declining mental health and was vulnerable to influence, and that Marilyn took advantage of his disabilities to divest ‘more than $800,000’ from Frank”, a claim they could never prove. Marilyn then lawyered-up, and countersued Frank’s children for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, elder abuse and slander. The case went to trial, where Marilyn and Frank’s children all testified – and to a jury – and then to the Appellate Court.
The jury found that the children did not prove any of their claims against Marilyn, but returned a special verdict in Marilyn’s favor against two of the children on her claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The jury awarded Marilyn $323,700.00 (!!!), and the Appellate Court upheld the verdict.
The decision of the appellate court is entertaining reading, and is a lesson to anyone who allows their own self-interest to overshadow the true values of those who entrust decision-making to them. The testimony cited by the court shows how much money can affect people, even to the point of cutting off their own father from the one person who loved him and cared for him. Marilyn’s life was ruined by the callous actions of greedy children, but the real victim of this case was Frank – he died without the loving care of the one person in the world who could comfort him in his time of need. As the Court said in upholding the jury’s verdict “A reasonable person could find this conduct exceeded the bounds of conduct expected in a civilized society.” Amen.