20/20 on OWN channel - story of an elder who changed her Will

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If you get a chance, try to find "Master Manipulators" Season 3, Episode 43, on the OWN channel. Excellent story line.


Has to do with a widow, Mary Ellen Bendtsen of Dallas, who owned a very expensive house, who had befriended two antique dealers, and right after she had a stroke at 88 and while in the hospital, the antique dealers had an Attorney come to the hospital and have the widow change her Will. Thus her only child no longer would get the house, instead it would go to the two antique dealers. This changing of the Will was video taped so the Attorney could prove later on that Mary Ellen was of sound mind. She wasn't.


One can also search this story by Googling "Mary Ellen Bendtsen".


This is something that every one of us who have elders who own a home or have large bank accounts should take note. The above antique dealers befriended Mary Ellen to a point where she trusted them over her own daughter. I can't recall if the daughter had lived out of state or not. These two fellows had done this before with other elders they befriended, where in those Wills money was left to them.

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As the population ages, my feeling is that elder fraud will increase. I am so shocked at how many people are going through or have gone through some of the terrible things that my family had to endure for years due to unscrupulous people.
My personal situation occurred to my family over a period of about 5 years. In the final years of her life, my mother, who suffered from dementia, fell victim to financial abuse by the very nursing home caregivers we had trusted to keep her safe and comfortable. The corrupt nursing facility in Hackettstown, NJ put her in touch with two completely shameless and unethical local attorneys who manipulated her and bilked her out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and a large portion of her estate. We (my husband and I - as I am an only child) fought hard to stop them using our own personal savings, but they had powerful connections. We had made a deathbed promise to my father in 1988 to care for my Italian-born mother, who was naïve to begin with even before the dementia set in. My petition with the county court for legal guardianship as her only family went nowhere, and my family was unsure where to turn then and even now, when the system is so irreparably broken. The last few years of my mother’s life were fraught with watching these attorneys separate her completely from her family, until they fought for, and won legal guardianship, only 22 days before her death. She died alone in the new nursing home they moved her to (unbeknownst to us), having fallen from her bed, completely unaware, isolated and alienated from her close family. My hope in telling my story is that I can connect with others who are facing the same type of unimaginable situation with their loved ones. There are unscrupulous people who prey on the elderly, and I would love to help at least one person or family avoid the same heartache we fought to keep happening from my mother. We hope to go public with my story soon, but it takes a long time to find the right people in the media. We won’t give up though.
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Well, forging the will of an old lady whose daughter was a probate lawyer was what finally did for him, silly bugger, as far as I recollect.

Do you know, his widow is still disputing his guilt (he hanged himself in prison, after conviction) and is still publicly lamenting her loss of financial security and status? The ingratitude of all those he served with such dedication?

And, mainly, he did. He was a very popular GP, with lots of satisfied customers. Just the one teensy tiny flaw of being an avaricious psychopath on the side.

It isn't that I don't have any sympathy for her - she played absolutely no part in the crimes, or in his practice as far as I know - but you'd think she'd have a bit more tact and common sense, wouldn't you.

So although there are loads and loads of instances where there have been either serious failures or more often a chain of small, cumulative failures, I'm not sure about this one. It would have taken a very defensive, forensic attitude to look at what he was doing - making house calls to well cared-for very elderly people - and work on the assumption that he was methodically bumping them off.

When people die at home, no matter how predictably, we do now get a call from the coroner checking that we don't have any questions or concerns before the death certificate gets signed off. That extra process is thanks to him.

It's only in a half-baked way, but in this as well as a lot of other areas of regulation, I'm beginning to think there are serious downsides to their being matters of policy as such at all. It's as though, if there isn't a law against it, we're helpless to see what's going on under our noses and intervene. Peter Hitchens* (a bit of a "Marmite" commentator, but always interesting and - a weakness of mine :) - has a really beautiful voice!) argues persuasively against the continual infantilisation of society. We sit around waiting for new laws or new initiatives instead of taking responsibility ourselves.

*Not to be confused with Christopher Hitchens, militant atheist and iconoclast, his brother. They do say that brothers' quarrels are the bitterest, don't they, and the two fell out spectacularly.
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CM, I've just read a well written and informational article on Shipman, of whom I was unaware prior to your post. There certainly were some failures on the part of the law enforcement system.

You raise an interesting question - what would bring someone like this to the attention of the legal system? I've read here and in a few cases experienced police response and unwillingness to become involved in family disputes, unless they're ones in which firearms or threats are involved. But that's just a generalization; I don't have much experience (thankfully) in that area.

Still, you raise an interesting point. How does society create an effective identification method of elder abuse, whether it's tricked execution of documents or outright murder?

I think there are a lot of areas that could be addressed better, including the APS service. But are these "electable" issues, i.e., are they going to get politicians elected again, which seems these days to be the primary focus as many of them aren't focused on what's best for the country.
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I am getting terribly cynical in my old age, I'm afraid.

The old lady herself didn't suffer one iota at the hands of this pair of rogues, did she? It was the daughter who was complaining!

Compare and contrast with Dr Harold Shipman.

Hmmm. Maybe if Dr Shipman had got greedy with legacies earlier on, and thereby inconvenienced more relatives, he wouldn't have been left in peace to murder quite so many elderly patients.
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FF, thanks for the heads-up. I've just read the ABC News article (the Dallas one was plagued by annoying pop-ups), and found myself getting angry at the legal and elder abuse perpetrated by the defendants, who are now getting their just "rewards" as they battle lawsuits against them, and found that the duress Will was declared to have been improperly executed.

This is yet another sad and regrettable tale of shysters using trickery to con someone. But, my first thought in reading your last paragraph, that these two con artists weren't new to fraud, was RICO.

I haven't kept up on RICO applications but I recall reading years ago that RICO was being used and expanded beyond its original intent to address other "pattern[s] of racketeering activity".

I don't know if elder fraud affects "interstate commerce" as defined in the statute, but it might, and/or the statute might have been interpreted through case law to address that requirement. I also haven't researched specific case law interpretations of a "pattern of racketeering activity,"

Researching that would be an interesting project for the next rainy day.

Wouldn't it be heartwarming if elder law abuse was deemed by one of the appellate, if not the Supreme Court, to include documents such as Wills executed under duress or through misrepresentation? Expanding RICO to include elder law crimes (if it hasn't already) would be a big step for those who seek for their own benefit to disinherit others.

There are a few times when I wish I had gone to law school; if I had, I would want to work for one of the organizations that take on cases like this and highlight the abuse that elders suffer at the hands of greedy family members and/or "professional" scammers.
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