Saturday, April 12, 2014
I think it is safe to say that in more than twenty years of working in law and aging, the last twelve months have been the "busiest" I can remember on the topic of financial abuse of older persons.
As examples, in just the last six months, in addition to international projects on safeguarding policies, I have been invited to assist a team of attorneys on a series of well-attended CLE presentations on "powers of attorney," testify at the invitation of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on the topic of financial abuse and exploitation, and serve on an Abuse and Neglect Committee for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Elder Law Task Force.
Certainly the concerns about financial abuse of older adults are not new. However, a steady drumbeat of local news reports about financial abuse, plus the demographics of aging populations, has drawn increased attention of state legislators, courts, and practitioners. In many jurisdictions, the focus is no longer just on "whether" but "how" to address the problem of exploitation of older people. In addition, the high profile cases involving philanthropist Brooke Astor and actor Mickey Rooney, reportedly at the hands of family members and others, have made it clear that no level of society is immune from the potential for abuse.
Along this line, in Pennsylvania a series of events have helped to shape the current debate on abuse of older persons or other "vulnerable" adults, and thus has generated proposed legislation. Perhaps Pennsylvania's history will resonate with those addressing similar concerns in other jurisdictions:
- In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a state agency that was responsible for administering a specific retirement fund was entitled to good faith immunity under state law when taking action in reliance on a purported Power of Attorney (POA) presented by the spouse as agent of his employee/wife. In Vine v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a majority of the Court concluded that where the employee's "X" on the POA was improperly obtained by her husband while she was incapacitated after a life threatening car accident, the POA was invalid -- in other words "void" -- and therefore the "immunity" conferred by the state's POA law was not available to the agency. (There were strong dissents to the majority's ruling,). The decision had implications for POAs generally, and certainly POAs presented by family members or others to banks on behalf of older people who needed or desired agents to handle financial matters. In Pennsylvania, financial institutions began questioning POAs, seeking reassurances that the document in question was valid. The commercial viability of POAs was thus at risk. This became known as the "Vine" problem in Pennsylvania.
- Attorneys representing various stakeholders, including families, financial institutions and district attorneys, began to weigh-in with proposed "fixes" for the Vine problem, while sometimes also raising other concerns related to financial abuse of older or vulnerable adults.
- The Uniform Law Commission, after years of hard work by academics, judges, attorneys and other interested parties nationwide, issued a proposed "Uniform Power of Attorney Act" (UPOAA) in 2006. Central to the proposed legislation were safeguards intended to better protect the incapacitated principal, as well as address concerns by agents and third parties. By 2014, fourteen states have enacted revisions of POA laws, drawing upon the Uniform Act for guidance. As with other uniform law movements, the Commission's work on UPOAA recognized the need for accepted standards for instruments used in national commerce, instruments that frequently cross state borders.
- In Pennsylvania, the UPOAA has influenced two bills, House Bill 1429 (introduced by Representative Keller) and Senate Bill 620 (introduced by Senator Greenleaf). Each bill passed in their respective houses. (This single sentence truncates several years of history about the negotiations, all set against the background of need for a "Vine" fix.) Both bills address the concerns of banks and other third-parties who want reassurances that they may rely in good faith on POAs that appear on their face to be valid.
- Following legislative hearings that included testimony from individuals representing banks, legal service agencies, and protective service agencies, other legislative proposals emerged. These pending bills include: SB 621 (Senator Greenleaf) with significant, additional updates to POA laws, as well as other parts of the probate code; HB 2014 (Representative Hennessey) proposing significant revisions of the state's Older Adult Protective Services Act; and HB 2057 (Representative White) amending the Older Adult Protective Services Act to create a private right of action, including attorneys fees and punitive damages, for victims of exploitation against the abusers.
In Pennsylvania, which has a year-round legislature, there tend to be two windows for major action on pending legislation, including the "budget" cycle that ends on July 1 and again during autumn months. In following the various bills, it seems to me likely that HB 1429 will be the vehicle for the "Vine" fix. There is also the possibility that Senator Greenleaf's second bill, SB 621, and other tweaks will be passed, either as standalone legislation or as amendments to HB 1429 or other bills. Thus, for interested persons and stakeholders, the weeks leading up to July 1 will mean keeping a watchful eye (and alert ear) for last minute changes.
All of the stakeholders are well-intentioned and concerned about the best interests of older adults who because of frailty often have no choice but to rely on agents or others acting in a fiduciary capacity.
At the same time, as I've watched the events of the last four years in Pennsylvania come to a peak the last six months, I've observed a complicating factor. Those who are most likely to see violations of POAs, including district attorneys, protective service agencies and the courts, probably do not see the larger volume of commercial transactions that happen routinely and appropriately without the added cost of enhanced accounting or oversight. By comparison, professional advisors who routinely facilitate families in estate planning, including transactional attorneys, tend not to see the abusers. Finally, financial institutions, who probably feel caught in the middle, and who are often on the front lines of witnessing potential abuse, seek the ability to report suspected abuse without incurring liability, while also avoiding the costs of becoming "mandatory" reporters (a topic addressed in some proposed amendments of the Older Adult Protective Services Act). Thus it is challenging to balance the viewpoints of different groups in crafting effective (including cost effective) solutions.
There is also the potential that by focusing primarily on POAs, which in Pennsylvania is driven by a very real need for a "Vine" fix, we may be missing or minimizing other significant instances of abuse via joint accounts, questionably "signed" checks, or misuse of bank cards and credit cards. The amounts of money per transaction may be smaller in those instances, but depending on the victim's resources, the impact may be even more significant.
Ironically, as the population of older adults increases, state funding, including Pennsylvania funding, is under constant threat, thus weakening Protective Services, Legal Services and the courts, all entities that can help victims, and that have expertise in investigation and intervention where abuse is indicated.