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The Moneyist: My uncle, 60, with dementia died after ‘negligence’ by his wife of 3 years. How do we stop her from defrauding the government?

‘We have no doubt she would try to hide his passing in order to collect his Social Security, so that her income level doesn't change.’ Read More...

Dear Moneyist,

We just lost my 60-year-old uncle to dementia. He struggled with drugs during his early years, and as a result, my mom raised his daughter. Once he became sober, we were all very close, and we did our best to provide care for him. 

His official cause of death was preventable — the result of alleged negligence. His wife of three years was incapable of providing the necessary care, and refused to put him into a nursing home, as she would lose his Social Security and other benefits.

Last year, she dropped him off at a psychiatric hospital and refused to answer the case worker’s calls. She never told us, and we only found out when we had the police do a welfare check on him. 

‘His wife of three years was incapable of providing the necessary care, and refused to put him into a nursing home, as she would lose his Social Security .’

She was willing to give us custody, until she learned of the financial ramifications.

His daughter, sister, and I tried to provide assistance, but were at the mercy of his wife, who regularly withheld access and information. Last year, she had my uncle sign a power of attorney.

That power of attorney was signed nearly a year after the diagnosis. We tried to fight it, but it became too costly. Instead, our family picked up the slack and tried to have someone visit every three weeks, which was no easy feat, as most lived over 500 miles away.

Life-insurance policy and will

Due to a COVID-19 exposure, the last two visits were seven weeks apart. He passed unexpectedly during the last visit. We asked for a copy of the will, as we knew he had previously paid for funeral arrangements, etc., but the wife refused to provide it. None of us have heard from her since we were at the cremation (something he didn’t want).

My 92-year-old grandfather, who didn’t know much about the environment his son endured, called the wife to offer his condolences. He asked if she had the paperwork for the life-insurance policy he had on his son. 

‘My grandfather has been paying a full-life policy on my uncle since 1986 — enough that it would have buried him and closed his estate.’

According to my grandfather, he has been paying a whole-life insurance policy on my uncle since 1986. The policy is not much — between $5,000 and $10,000 — but enough that it would have buried him and closed his estate. My grandfather and cousin are joint beneficiaries of the policy.

Once we find the paperwork, are we at risk of losing the policy? My grandfather wants to give all the money to my cousin, as she is paying to bury her dad’s ashes in his plot — an expense that was paid for, though we have no record of it. (We believe it was outlined in the will.) She is a single mom, and it is an enormous expense to her. 

My uncle’s wife refused to take any death certificates, refused an obituary and refused a service. We have no doubt she would try to hide his passing in order to collect his Social Security, so that her income level doesn’t change. Is there anything we can do to make sure his wife does not defraud the government? 

Grieving Niece

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at [email protected]etwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear Grieving,

I understand that you felt overwhelmed at the time, but there is a lot you can do.

Your uncle’s lawyer should have a copy of the will, and it should be filed with the probate court, typically within 30 days, although that depends on the state where your uncle lived. You should also be able to file a petition to require the person holding the will — in this case, your uncle’s wife — requiring her to file the will, assuming it was a valid will and one exists.

“Call Social Security and tell them that he has passed, and forward the death certificate to Social Security,” says Sheryl Dennis, a founding partner of Fields and Dennis in Boston, Mass. “Find out who to send this document to just in case. They should have been proactive from the start through elder services or the court system.”

“These situations are more common than we realize. They should have stepped in much earlier [to petition for] a guardianship or conservatorship,” Dennis added. “She may have taken advantage of him from the very start. If I’m trying to find an attorney, I’ll look at who notarized the power of attorney he had and/or who notarized the will.”

‘If I’m trying to find an attorney, I’ll look at who notarized the power of attorney he had and/or who notarized the will.’

— Sheryl Dennis, a founding partner of Fields and Dennis in Boston, Mass.

If your uncle’s doctor says he was not capable of making certain decisions, it’s possible that the will is not valid. “Sometimes, if there’s a prior will, that can become the valid will. Or the court could say that he died intestate and go by those laws instead,” Dennis said. Intestate laws typically divide the estate between a person’s spouse and their children.

“If the wife tried to change the beneficiaries, that would lead to litigation,” Dennis said. “If the grandfather was the owner of this policy, no one can change the beneficiaries but him.” Your grandfather can call the life-insurance company and provide a death certificate, and the company should issue the life-insurance proceeds to the beneficiaries. 

I hope this gives you a roadmap to ensure that your uncle’s estate is divided in accordance with his wishes. Elder abuse — if that is what happened here — is sadly not uncommon, and it’s often carried out by a friend or family member. There are 1 million cases of elder abuse reported to National Adult Protective Services Association per year, which is a small fraction of overall cases.

You did the best you could at the time, and hopefully your uncle’s story will help others too.

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