BLADENBORO, N.C. (WECT) - When someone reaches the point in life where making decisions for healthcare, finances and legal matters is beyond his or her ability, a power of attorney agreement can make sure everything is attended to.
The operative word: “power.”
While these strongly-worded, legally-binding documents can help seniors keep their affairs in order, they also include significant risk.
“Anytime you sign over your ability to control your finances and resources, there’s a risk,” said Robert Higdon, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Power of attorney abuse is one of the many forms of elder fraud Higdon’s office works to combat and prosecute.
Even in cases where the activities do not result in criminal charges, the stress on the individual and his or her family can be significant.
That has been the case for the family of the late Bladen County native James Hester.
Hester, born in 1937, was always a frugal man, said Phyllis Boyd, one of Hester’s three surviving children.
Boyd said he sold worms to fisherman as a child, stocking the money away rather than spending it on toys or clothes. She said he continued that pattern throughout his adult life, where he eventually got into the monuments business.
Boyd said she began to suspect something was wrong in August 2016, when they were approached by an employee of Lumbee Guaranty Bank, who asked Boyd to bring her father by for a visit.
When Boyd took her father to the bank, she said the employee informed them his account had only a few thousand dollars remaining, and the bank wanted to check in because something seemed amiss about the withdrawals.
Until that point, Boyd said, she had not taken a deep dive into her father’s finances.
When she did, she learned her father had signed a power of attorney, putting her sister Kim Thompson in charge of his affairs.
That document, according to court records, was signed in March of 2013, a few months after Hester was in a significant car crash that led to a months-long hospitalization, and long after Hester was diagnosed with dementia. Documents regarding Hester’s hospitalization provided to WECT indicate the hospital was aware of the dementia diagnosis, and that he struggled with various mental conditions during his stay.
Boyd said she and her brother Robert were aware an initial power of attorney was signed, but despite the siblings deciding together in 2015 that their father should no longer live on his own due to his progressing dementia symptoms, and Boyd then moving into Hester’s home, the two siblings had no idea the document was later modified to the full, durable POA.
Robert Hester said he was also aware Thompson was going to take custody of more than $900,000 cash his father had stocked away, and though he encouraged his dad to have an attorney draw up an agreement, the money was gone.
After the meeting at the bank, Boyd said she went to see her sister to find out where that money, along with thousands of dollars in various bank accounts, had gone, and that the relationship between the siblings — which she says was amicable just a few weeks before — quickly broke down.
In October 2016, Boyd petitioned the court to have Hester deemed incompetent and a guardian appointed to him.
The court granted that request in November of that year, naming both Boyd and Thompson guardians of Hester, and Thompson guardian of his estate.
In December, Boyd filed to have Thompson removed as a financial guardian, and Hester appointed a guardian ad-litem.
Around the same time, she filed a report with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office against Thompson.
In response, Thompson filed complaints against Boyd — arguing that she was the one abusing their father and worsening his financial situation, and seeking to have her removed as a guardian.
Thompson alleged Boyd was trying to “discredit Thompson and has been deceitful in her representations to others about Kim Thompson.”
She also alleged Boyd was the one mismanaging Hester’s affairs.
Among other financial items, Thompson claimed Boyd “bypassed” her authority in the power of attorney to file an insurance claim for damage from Hurricane Matthew — a claim refuted by an email from an insurance agent indicating Boyd was listed as an insured on the policy.
In the end, Thompson was granted legal guardianship of Hester and a separate attorney was put in charge of the then 80-year-old’s finances.
Throughout the process, Robert Hester said he tried to keep the peace between the two sisters, but is now of the opinion Thompson “took advantage” of her father — something he knew caused his father immense pain in his final months.
“I’m not trying to cause Kim any problems,” he said by phone Monday, “but I watched my dad cry.”
Over the next year, Hester’s health continued to decline, and Boyd continued to care for him around the clock.
“I was so proud of the way she took care of my dad,” Robert Hester said.
During that time, the relationship between the sisters continued to deteriorate, with the police called more than once when Boyd alleges Thompson attempted to remove her father from his home against his wishes.
Robert Hester said his father begged Boyd not to give up on the legal fight with Thompson, and Boyd promised she wouldn’t.
Both Boyd and Robert Hester said they know people will think they have a financial motive for continuing to push the issue, but that the only want their father made whole, even if it’s posthumously.
Assistant District Attorney Quintin McGee said his office has been informed of the situation, but that the case is still with the Bladen County Sheriff’s office, and no criminal charges have been filed at this time.
Boyd said she is in the process of seeking civil action against her sister.
WECT attempted to contact Thompson, as well as her attorney Cynthia Singletary.
In a call Monday, Singletary said through strong language she would not be making a comment, and said the court documents speak for themselves.
Robert Hester said if he could encourage other people with aging parents to do one thing, it would be to seek legal counsel before any kind of POA is signed, because his family’s story shows how complicated the situation can become.
“You never know who you’re dealing with,” he said.
Higdon agrees, and said that’s one of the things they cover in the town halls where they try to help seniors protect themselves against financial exploitation.
He said that education is important, because the risks of power of attorney abuse go beyond family disagreements.
In some cases, he said, seniors will be approached by strangers encouraging them to sign a POA, in some cases asking for payment to do so,
“That’s why my office is working closely with AARP, and with Meals on Wheels and other organizations that serve our older Americans, trying to get information in their hands, so they are equipped to resist those who are trying to take their money away from them,” he said.
Higdon said whenever it comes time to put together a power of attorney, the family should seek both legal and financial advice from an attorney and certified public accountant.
In the near future, Higdon’s team will be hosting a town hall in Wilmington about elder abuse, with resources to help seniors avoid it. WECT will update this story and broadcast that information when it becomes available.