This may come as a shock to long-term readers, but I can be rather cynical at times. Dealing with the flotsam and jetsam of humanity for many a decade has taken its toll. There are some truly wonderful people in this world (and yes, I’m talking specifically about you), but there are also a lot of people who fall short of our high standards.
The folks who earn a particularly large dose of my ire are those who take advantage of the weak. And that brings us to today’s story.
My father’s memory and mental faculties have been getting worse for some time. My brother and I handle his affairs, and I’d like to think we do a good job of it. However, I shudder to think of what would happen if we weren’t there to help.
My mother passed long ago, and after dealing with all of the complexity of the funeral arrangements, my father wanted to make sure we didn’t have to deal with the same for him. Shortly thereafter, he told us he’d spent a pretty penny and prepaid everything that would be needed – plot, casket, service, transportation, everything. He didn’t say he was thinking about doing this, or that he was making plans to do it. He said it was done. While my father may not be as anal retentive as I am (editor’s note: no one is…), when he was clear that he had done something, you could take that to the bank. Telling us that it was taken care of was the final step of taking it off our plates.
Fast forward 15 years, and my father’s memory was starting to fail. He forgot that he had organized all his funeral arrangements, so one day he went in to the funeral home and wanted to write them a big check to do it all over again. In the funeral home business, this is what they refer to as “a good day”.
The funeral home employee, remembering the high ethical standards of his industry and his own strong moral code, informed my father that everything was already taken care of and then immediately called us for a welfare check out of concern for my father’s failing memory.
Haha – that’s not what happened. But my father didn’t quite write his check that day – he had a boatload of information on the options and “needed to think it over” (you could say impaired decision making was the silver lining of his Alzheimer’s, but that’d be kinda dark). He happened to mention this to my brother, who immediately declared a double red alert.
My brother and I talked. He said, “I’m not the most anal retentive person in the world (he’s right – he’s in second place), but I distinctly remember dad saying he’d bought all of this stuff.” I agreed, so I called Snidely Whiplash at the funeral home and told him my father’s memory was starting to fail, I had financial power of attorney, and he should only deal with me. The funeral home immediately downgraded it to “a bad day”.
I also asked the guy why my father would need anything at all – everything had been purchased long ago, just after my mother passed. Right?
He “needed to check his records” and “would get back to me”. Fair enough.
The very next day, the guy wrote me back. He informed me there was no record of my father purchasing anything for himself.
Since the grave was a double decker – I don’t think that’s the industry term, but my father’s casket will go on top of my mother’s in the same grave – he at least had a spot (good to know they’re not going to put someone else in there with mom), but everything else – service, casket, Snidely Whiplash Jr.’s college fund – remained to be paid. On the plus side, the guy was really eager to help. He thought the Diamond Package for a cool $13K was a really good deal.
I was stunned. I knew this wasn’t right, and I smelled a rat. But I kept my temper in check and told him I’d check my records and get back to him.
Next step: find my dad’s records. That was an exercise in frustration. As I went through his files, I found excellent documentation of our 1984 roof replacement. I was pleased to find comprehensive vaccination records for all of my childhood pets. I thought I hit the motherlode when I found a file for this funeral home, but it was only the records for my mother’s funeral. There was absolutely nothing for my father’s purchase of his own funeral arrangements.
I finally wrote Snidely back and told him that we hadn’t yet found his records, but I was going to check with another relative, who happened to be the attorney who had written his will, my POA, etc. and who likely had copies of his most important records.
[Sidebar – I know everyone thinks the U.S. is super litigious and there are too many lawyers and lawyers are bad and stuff. But every once in a while, attorneys actually do some good. I was telling the truth about the relative (though I already knew he had no relevant records) as I knew casually dropping the a-word might get someone’s attention. ‘Cause while normal folks might not like lawyers that much, do you know who absolutely loathes them? Scoundrels, that’s who.]
And then I waited. You could say I was coiled like a python, waiting patiently for the perfect moment to strike. But the truth is I kinda forgot about it. I desperately wanted to be done with my father’s arrangements, but it seriously galled me that my father would have to pay for them twice. My brain resolved the conflict by moving it to the back burner.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I realized this task was still undone and my father wasn’t getting any younger. It pained me that my father’s conscientiousness would be for naught. When I imagined the encouragement the funeral home must’ve shown him (“It’s so loving that you’re taking this burden away from your family”) versus the more recent, “Oh no, your father must be confused – we only show records for your mother” as they pantomime checking imaginary filing cabinets, it made my blood boil.
As I considered the path forward, I realized two things. First, my brother and I were both certain – like, willing to bet our net worth certain – that my father had purchased something. Second, I had nothing to lose by bluffing.
I rang the funeral home to confirm Snidely still worked there. Of course he did – helping families in their time of need is his life’s calling.
Then I wrote him an email. After dispensing with the niceties, I asked:
Can you please confirm what my father did purchase for his own service? At long last, we\’ve found his records of that transaction and would like to match that up (services and amounts) with what you have on record.
Yes, we had “found” his records – they were right next to all of my Heisman Trophies and Nobel Peace Prizes. But finding “nothing” is finding “something”, right? (Clearly I missed my calling as an attorney.)
Most honest people would have put my chances of success close to zero. But honest people don’t think like scoundrels. Stealing from old people is a crime of opportunity, and the opportunity was getting distinctly smaller. I claimed I actually had records and wanted to see his, and there was apparently an attorney lurking around somewhere. Sure, I was probably bluffing, but I also might be setting a trap. There are legalities around prepaid funeral expenses – I’m no lawyer, but I believe they can be summarized as, “You’re not allowed to steal that money.” Was Snidely willing to make that bet? Do you feel lucky, punk?
He was not.
He wrote back:
Hope all is well with you.
I have researched the records for your parents here with us.
It looks like about all you will need to complete the needs of your father is the Bronze Scroll for the Lawn Crypt Memorial. The current cost is $450.00 and can be pre paid. Let me know if you would like to take care of that ahead of time.
A Bronze Scroll for $450 sounds steep, but it beats the heck out of $13K. He then detailed everything that my father had, in fact, purchased. He even included a copy of the contract! We were buddies now, you see. And his closing words touched my heart:
He has done very well is getting everything secured. Such a nice man.
I am here to serve and call if you need to chat.
How to Safeguard the Old Folks in Your Life
I wish this was the only instance of a person or business trying to take advantage of my father in his old age. Sadly, it’s not. Nowadays there are no problems – when scoundrels try to contact him, if they’re lucky it goes straight to a some a**hole with way too much time on his hands (that’s me!). If they’re unlucky, they get my brother…
But when my father’s memory and faculties were just beginning to fail, there were daily opportunities to rip him off. I think people like to imagine there’s some firm line you cross and go from being fully independent to immediately needing full-time help, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s a gradual and very frustrating process, and the sharks are circling the whole time.
Some of the keys to protecting an older person (and remember, this will someday be you) from scoundrels are:
- Find someone you can trust
This is critical, and I wish you luck. A younger family member is an obvious choice, but even those don’t always work out. I’d like to think that several decades of observation would tell you if you can trust someone to handle your affairs, but even then there are no guarantees. And if you have to go outside of your family, or use a less-trusted / competent family member, things can get dicey fast. This post isn’t a how-to guide on finding such a fiduciary; it’s just a reminder that everyone will need one someday.
- Keep and share excellent records
I don’t know if prepaying funeral expenses is wise – financially, it’s probably a loser, but the thoughtfulness of taking that burden from your family counts for something. But I wish my father had shared copies of everything at the time of purchase. There are many similar critical documents (e.g., life insurance policies) that could be shared as well to relieve the need for a forensic accounting investigation after death or memory loss. A will is different – since you don’t want multiple versions floating around, and you want everyone to continue to be nice to you, you should just let everyone know where the current version is. But keeping excellent records and sharing when appropriate is a true gift to your family.
- Tell everyone what’s going on
This is what saved us here. My father was really clear what he had done, and he told us multiple times back in the days when he was as sharp as a tack. We never doubted his account despite the lack of documents, and that’s what made the difference. He shared similar information on other key topics (assets, intentions, etc.) so we had a good sense of his affairs before we ever looked at any of his documents. This isn’t a replacement for good record-keeping, but it’s a very important addition.
Stealing from old people will always be a thing. It’s easy, and there’s a low chance of getting caught. As a bonus, if you fail, you can pretend that you never intended to steal in the first place. (“Ah yes – here are the records! Your father has done very well is getting everything secured.”)
However, stealing from the old is often a crime of opportunity from scoundrels who will let fear win in the battle of fear versus greed. A little effort, communication, and diligence can go a long way in shifting that battle in your favor. And if you can find a younger, trusted
a**hole fiduciary to help you out, I really like your chances 🙂
6 thoughts on “Stealing from Old People for Fun and Profit”
Sage advice. I’ve spoken with dear old dad about his affairs and making sure he’s been a good little soldier and gotten them in order. He’s orally assured me that he has. But you’ve now prompted me to put my attorney hat on (I am an a-word) and get stuff in writing. I may be the third most anal retentive person in the world.
On a somewhat related note, as you may know, the very fantastic Dr. Atul Gawande has written and presented on end-of-life issues, and questions to ask before it’s too late. Here are links that might be helpful for some folks: https://www.ilcorp.org/atul-gawandes-5-questions-ask-lifes-end/ and https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/being-mortal/.
And I am right there with you on hoping there’s a special place in hell for those who prey on the elderly. A current hobby of mine is seeing how long I can keep spam callers on the line. I’m closing in on 30 minutes. I am hoping to do much better and am honing my techniques.
Many thanks Joe.
That is great that your father has given you assurances that his affairs are in order, but I think you’re wise to get copies of the documents as well. I was unpleasantly surprised to find how shaky of ground I was on when I was insisting my father had taken care of things but had no written records (and the jerk, of course, was discounting that because of my father’s current mental state).
I was not aware of Dr. Gawande’s content – thank you very much for including those links. We assume that we have time to cover all of those discussions, but we’re often wrong and everyone loses.
I have to hope that the people who steal from the elderly are punished not only in the next life but also in this one – it seems that it would be terrifying to victimize the old when each day that passes brings you closer to shifting from predator to prey. Let’s hope that keeps them up at night!
Oh man… you really dodged that bullet with some creative thinking Paul!
Sadly, my parent’s mental facilities are slowly starting to fail too. They’re already too easily manipulated by salesmen. I’ve been able to mitigate this to some extent by taking back their investments from the clutches of some churn-happy stock brokers.
Unfortunately it’s a fact of life that there are some major creeps out there trying to steal from old people (old people have all the money, right?)
I think your advice is spot-on! Get it all in writing and share the documents with other family members!
Thanks Tako-san. I do feel very lucky – I had already pretty much resigned myself to the worst.
If you’ve already been able to assist your parents a bit, that’s a good starting point to discuss with them the additional roles they want you to play going forward. After a while, my father got to the point where he couldn’t handle even basic finance or admin tasks, so he just got used to telling the sharks to talk to me. It also helped that he really had trouble hearing people on the phone. They’d try and try and he’d keep yelling at them to speak up, and then finally hand them off to me. And the yelling would begin anew 🙂
Sad history…sad to know that there are people like this out there, ready for taking advantage of people. I was getting repulse for the guy while reading the text but got happy with the end.
My mother is very innocent with people and money, it will be aggravated by the time she will start facing a decline in mental facilities. We try to always be around before any major decision.
I wish to all of you involved a smooth future, without major issues.
And for the Snidely Whiplash…as the people from my country says: here you do, here you pay.
All the best.
It is sad that there are people who prey on the old and weak, but it’s not that surprising. I feel very lucky that we are in a position to help, but as my father has aged I continually wonder, “What happens to those who don’t have anyone to help?” I think the things that happen that no one ever hears about would probably make us cry.
I am going to take a lesson from my experience with my father and start having one or both of my sons help with my bills and finances long before I ever become incapacitated. If I end up with a sharp mind at 90 a la Warren Buffett, that’s fine, but if I do succumb to dementia then they will be ready (and I won’t resist…) for a full-time role.
I like your country’s saying. People can do bad things, but they’ll never truly “get away with it”. Thanks for the note!