|So far, Mary Morris has spent three years and $73,000 to get back just part of the $475,000 that was withdrawn from her mother's accounts by the relative who was overseeing the elderly woman's affairs.
Morris' mother agreed, three years before she died at age 96 in 2004, to give legal power of attorney to a grandnephew. It's a step that many advocates for older people say should be considered when people begin to show signs they are having difficulty managing finances, selling property, making acquisitions and buying insurance.
But a caution always accompanies that advice: Be careful whom you trust, and be careful about giving total authority to one person.
"You need to make sure that you either thoroughly trust your agent or you have some kind of controls on the agent's abilities to move assets," said Bob Mason, an Asheboro lawyer and vice chairman of the elder law section of the N.C. Bar Association.
Legal experts project a massive increase in lawsuits and prosecutions involving older Americans in decades to come as baby boomers reach retirement age and beyond. Already, substantiated instances of elder abuse are rising nationally at the rate of 15 percent a year, according to the American Bar Association. ABA members recently adopted a resolution urging that prosecutors be given more resources to fight elder crime.
Last year, North Carolina adult protective services sent county district attorneys written notices of 1,451 cases involving abuse, neglect or exploitation of adults. The numbers represent a 15 percent increase in cases since 2004.
Advocates say civil and criminal legal protections for older people are at the stage where domestic violence and child abuse safeguards were two decades ago -- in need of reform.
"As we have an aging population, there are reasons to say prosecutors should be paying more attention and using more resources to deal with what's going to be an increasing problem," said Stephen Salzburg, a Georgetown University law professor and co-author of the ABA resolution.