Our client “Opal,” a 72-year-old Boston resident, spent her entire life working hard as a cleaner in a local hospital, saving money each month until she could finally buy her own home about 20 years ago. Opal’s home was her only asset, and she was quite proud of it. Recently, as Opal’s health began declining, she decided she wanted a will that left her house to her two sons, Gary and Bob, who also lived with her. She told both of her sons that this was her wish.
In early 2014, Opal’s son Bob told her he would take her to a lawyer to sign a will reflecting her wishes, and Opal happily agreed to go. It’s important to mention here that Opal has significant visual and hearing impairments—though she is sharp as a tack, she struggles to see and hear, making her completely dependent on her sons to be her eyes and ears. She trusted them both to communicate on her behalf as well as tell her what others were saying.
So when Opal and Bob went to the lawyer’s office and Bob told her the document on the table before her was a will, she believed him. Throughout that entire meeting, the lawyer did not once speak to or address Opal; he only talked with Bob. Opal assumed this was how wills were done and trusted that Bob was acting in her best interests. Opal signed where Bob pointed, and she left the lawyer’s office feeling content. However, the document that Opal thought was a will was actually a deed. By unknowingly signing this deed, Opal had conveyed her beloved home to Bob for $1. Opal no longer owned her home, and she had no idea that this was the case.
Bob’s deceit went unnoticed for months. He was crafty; on the deed he had listed his cousin’s address as his home address, ensuring that the property tax bills were sent to his cousin’s house instead of Opal’s home. So it was a stroke of luck when seven months later, the monthly property tax bill was mistakenly sent to Opal’s home. Opal’s son Gary noticed that the bill was addressed to Bob, and he immediately went to the tax assessor’s office to correct what he thought was just an error. While there, Gary saw a copy of the new deed for the first time. It was then that Gary and Opal realized what Bob had done. Opal was devastated.
Opal and Gary tried to reason with Bob and pleaded with him to transfer the house back to her, but Bob refused. A deeply religious woman, Opal struggled to reconcile how the son she had raised and loved could do this to her. Complicating this terrible situation was the fact that Opal, Gary, and Bob all lived together in the same house and had to face each other every day.
Opal then contacted Greater Boston Legal Services for help. She was adamant that all she had ever wanted was a will leaving her home to her two sons. She pointed out that even though Bob was now the owner of the home, he did not pay any of the household expenses, such as the mortgage, property taxes, and utilities. Opal continued to pay those costs. Opal also told us that despite what had happened, she still loved Bob. If Bob transferred the house back to her, Opal was willing to make a will leaving her house to both sons as she had always planned. We originally tried to talk with Bob, explaining how distraught his mother was and offering to compromise. He told us he would not transfer the house back, and he proceeded to contact realtors to put his newly acquired property up for sale.
Opal was distraught and could barely sleep at night. She had lost her only asset of value, the home that meant everything to her. She feared that Bob could evict her at any time since she no longer owned the property. Making matters worse was the fact that she would be ineligible for long-term care benefits from MassHealth if she were to need them over the next five years as a result of MassHealth’s complicated rules regarding property transfers. Given Opal’s age and worsening health, her potential ineligibility for long-term care benefits was a very urgent matter.
Bob and his attorneys either didn’t understand the significance of these ramifications or they simply didn’t care. Lost on them was the epidemic of elder abuse and its devastating consequences. Sadly, the majority of elder abuse is at the hands of relatives, creating a complicated situation because often abused elders love their family members, depend on them, fear them, and/or feel ashamed about what is happening to them.
Another issue in this case concerned the lawyer who drafted the deed that Opal thought was a will. This attorney prepared a significant donative document affecting Opal’s substantial legal rights, yet he made no effort to confirm Opal’s wishes or inquire about her background, her health, or her relationship with Bob. He took inadequate steps to assure that Opal understood the import of the deed, consented to the deed’s terms, was competent to sign the deed, and was not subject to any undue influence. He never explained to her that she was signing over her prized home for $1 or that doing so would have dire consequences for her future MassHealth eligibility. He had no idea that Opal couldn’t see or hear very well.
These are basic yet fundamental duties that the attorney owed Opal, whom he considered his client. The attorney never bothered to talk to Opal at all, and through his negligence he unwittingly facilitated Bob’s theft of Opal’s home. This is unacceptable. We at the Elder Abuse Prevention Project believe attorneys should be held to a higher standard. In order to properly serve clients, lawyers must educate themselves about elder abuse and understand how it manifests. And finally, the legal profession must acknowledge and address the very serious problem of those lawyers who seize upon the opportunity to make a profit at the expense of vulnerable elders.
Eventually in May of 2015, we negotiated the settlement of Opal’s case. Per that settlement, Bob signed a new deed transferring Opal’s home back to her for $1, and Opal executed the will that she had always intended, leaving her home to her two sons. We last saw Opal when she came to our office to sign her will this past summer. Clad in her signature “Jesus is my Boss” cap, she smiled so brightly in a way we had never seen. And she can finally sleep again.