Monday, April 26, 2004

Power of attorney poses risk to elderly

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - The estates of some elderly people, including those losing their mental abilities, could be depleted by caregivers who abuse a powerful legal tool giving them control over the person's checkbook, home and other assets.

State law requires no oversight when someone is granted power of attorney. The forms are available at libraries and on the Internet. No one keeps track of the agreements, and no one ensures the senior is competent to sign over control.

"It can be a license to steal," Franklin County Probate Judge Lawrence A. Belskis said. "When you give somebody a power of attorney, you are giving that person the right to do anything you could do yourself."

The lack of oversight isn't harmful if the person chosen has "a good heart and good intentions," said Diana Kubovcik, director of client services for the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging.

"But those same powers can be misused, with potentially horrific results," she said.

The same thing can happen with a court-approved guardian, who has even more power, such as where the person lives or whether to approve medical treatment. There is more court oversight in such cases, but there are many guardianships to keep track of: 7,000 in Franklin County alone.

The person might gain the financial power after being hired to provide full-time home health care, said Sally Hurme, a lawyer with AARP's national office in Washington.

"We frequently hear stories of frail older women who hire attendants who isolate them from loved ones so their very survival depends upon them," Hurme said. "In no time, the attendant controls what the older woman eats, when she goes out and whether she gets the medical care she needs."

Of the 161 complaints received last year by the Ohio Department of Aging, 100 were determined legitimate, said Beverley Laubert, long-term-care ombudsman. Of those, 73 were resolved or partly resolved, four couldn't be reconciled and 23 were withdrawn.

In 1997, Alice Leverette was appointed guardian for the estate of her aunt, Harriet Dayson. She and her husband, Michael, were convicted last month of stealing from Dayson's estate and ordered to repay $280,000. Their sentencing is scheduled for September.

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