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Avoiding Bad Influences

As the US population ages, a number of communities around the nation are finding themselves dealing with certain situations with increasing frequency. One of the issues arising with more regularity is that of undue influence. Far too often, this takes the shape of yet another kind of elderly abuse.

Perhaps an aging widow with a large estate develops a relationship with a young male tarot card reader. After some time goes by, they become closer and she begins to trust his judgment not only in astrological matters but in the realm of finance. Based on that trust, he very well might convince her to make decisions that are in his best interest, not hers.

Not to single out the female sex. An older single gentleman might be just as vulnerable to the wiles of an helpful, attractive nurse. The fact is, wherever there is a growing population of wealthy elderly individuals, there is also the risk of this kind of abuse.

And we need not expect all incidents of undue influence to be so cartoonishly black and white. Orange County, California is one of those communities where the conditions are becoming just right to create situations in which the courts will have to intervene.

Case in point: Anna Lou Horspool and her caretaker, Brimah Vonjo. When Horspool died of natural causes in June 2014, Vonjo had been taking care of her for the previous ten years. Many would not think that those years of service entitled him to her home and about $170,000 in stocks, but that's exactly what he ended up with. Or at least he would have.

According to Vonjo and his attorney, who once worked for Horspool, the story isn't nearly so cut and dry. Vonjo met the widow in 2002. She'd just had knee surgery and checked into a recovery facility where Vonjo was employed. According to him they connected right away. When she returned home, Vonjo started making visits, and he soon took up ever increasing care duties. He ended up leaving his position at the recovery center to take care of Horspool full time.

She left the facility in June 2003. By September, Vonjo was named as co-trustee and beneficiary of her assets. In the years to come, Vonjo came to take control of all of her finances. He says that all of this care was the result of their close relationship. "She called me 'son' and I called her 'Mama'," he said, adding that, for him, it was a way to make up for the fact that he was never able to take care of his real mother.

Whether Vonjo was a manipulative, self-serving conniver or somebody with true intentions toward towards a grateful older woman may largely depend on the observer. One person who has stood by Vonjo's version of the story is Thomas Gillan, the 87-year-old lawyer who was originally hired by Horspool in 2003 to help execute the trust. He went on to represent Vonjo and concurs that Harspools wishes were that Vonjo would inherit her assets.

Still, what really matters here is the opinion of the court. And in this jurisdiction, probate law stipulates that any trust created within 90 days before or after the commencement of a care-giving relationship is "presumed to be the product of fraud or undue influence".

According to the letter of the law, Vonjo was removed as trustee and beneficiary. He was also ordered to move out of Holspool's residence, where he had been living with his wife and daughter.

In this case, the victim gave consent and was deemed mentally competent. But laws have been put in place to prevent stronger individuals from taking advantage of those in weaker positions to get them to make decisions they would not have otherwise.

In New Hampshire, a case involving a police sergeant and a nonagenarian shares some of the same characteristics: a huge age difference, a fast friendship and the suspicion of relatives. Also like the first example, they met while one was on duty. Aaron Goodwin first came to Geraldine Webber's home in the course of investigating a crime. The two grew close, and in the course of the following two years, Goodwin played the role of companion and helper. He took her on a number of excursions, including going out for Bloody Marys and even gambling. When she passed away, he was by her side.

In the meantime, he had also found time to help her hire a new attorney to change her Will. In 2012, it was rewritten with Goodwin as the primary beneficiary. With an estate estimated at $2.7 million, it's not surprising that her relatives disputed the Will, claiming that Goodwin had taken advantage of Webber, who, according to her doctors, suffered from dementia.

Cases of this kind may differ in details, but their theme is not a new one. And as the US populations continues to age, we can expect to see more of them in the future. But there are ways to help ensure that your name doesn't end up in the newspaper in connection to such a dispute.

In order to avoid either being taken advantage of, or having your intentions thwarted, it is important that anyone taking on tasks such as naming trustees and beneficiaries is surrounded by a solid support network. A group of trusted loved ones, friends and legal professionals will be better able to prove, not only one's mental competence, but also to the fact that some person has not conned you for their own gain. Keeping in contact with a broad array of people is also the best way to avert any would-be con artist. After all, even the smartest of us can be tricked.

But, this isn't a perfect world. And, especially as we get into our later years, it may be difficult to keep in constant contact with friends and loved ones. No matter what the situation, it is always wise to add the extra layer of protection provided by a firm that has both knowledge of the legal ins and outs surrounding the transfer of estates and a solid, long-standing reputation for seeing to their clients' wishes. In the end, only with the aid of a credible and established professional genealogical services firm can one be reasonably certain that all branches of your family tree are known so that your intentions can be clearly documented.

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