I recently blogged about financial elder abuse, citing the statistic that 66 percent of elder abuse perpetrators are family members. Even worse than the idea of one of your clients being victimized by their family members is the thought of one of your clients falling victim to a member of your staff.
Yet that’s exactly what happened in the office of Tuscaloosa, Alabama attorney Zondra Hutto. Hutto served as guardian and conservator for a 79-year-old client suffering from dementia. Hutto’s law clerk stole several thousand dollars from the client and used the money to pay for travel, clothing, and other items. Since Hutto knew about her employee’s actions and did not report him, she has been sentenced to three months in prison. You can read the details of the story here.
The Hutto story is not an isolated incident. We all know that it is unethical to take money from a client. However, there are numerous cases of attorneys being disciplined or disbarred when “borrowing” from a client trust account. It’s not enough to hold yourself to a strict ethical standard; you also need to be especially careful to watch how funds of elderly clients are used in your office. This includes having systems in place for hiring and evaluating staff members so that good ethics will be the inviolate rule for everyone in your firm.
- First and foremost, character counts: hire honest employees.
- A quick tip: during the hiring process, check references and ask former employers if they’d hire the employee again; pay attention to how the question is answered – long pauses and unspoken words can speak volumes.
- After an employee is hired, establish clearly-defined systems for how tasks are to be performed.
- Monitor each employee’s performance.
- Restrict access to your firm’s financial accounts and to your client’s sensitive personal and financial information.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, an employee causes intentional financial harm to a client. If you are sure an employee – or anyone else – has committed financial elder abuse, report it immediately.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M. (Tax)
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (800) 846-1555
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