Brooke Astor's Grandson Fights Against Elder Abuse

Philip C. Marshall went to court to protect his wealthy socialite grandmother from being financially exploited by her own son. His crusade continues today.

The 2009 trial of Anthony Marshall, son of New York philanthropist Brooke Astor, brought nationwide attention to the issue of elder abuse. Marshall was found guilty of stealing millions of dollars from his mother and, along with a lawyer, fraudulently changing her will. Astor’s grandson Philip C. Marshall filed a guardianship petition in 2006 seeking to protect his grandmother—and today, years after the deaths of his father and grandmother, he continues to campaign against the financial exploitation of seniors. In this edited conversation, Marshall speaks with Senior Editor Eleanor Laise about how seniors and their loved ones can recognize and combat abuse.

Based on your experience, what are the key elder-abuse red flags that family members and friends should watch for?

Isolation of seniors is one of the biggest red flags. If a senior is isolated, that sets the stage for potential perpetrators to come in. Old friends vanishing, new friends—in quotes—showing up. This is what happened with my grandmother. New lawyer, new accountant, new best friend. All should signal possible warning signs.

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In your case, combating the abuse meant testifying against your father. What’s your advice to people who suspect their close relatives are the perpetrators?

My inbox and my voice mail are full of people who are desperately trying to figure out what to do. Yes, there’s a huge angst about addressing abuse with a family member you’ve had a lifetime relationship with. But the angst is really among people who say, ‘I’ve gone to law enforcement and Adult Protective Services, and they say this is a family affair or a civil matter.’

Very typically elder abuse is criminal and needs to be treated as such. That’s one of the things that came out of my grandmother’s case: It wasn’t just a battle of the bluebloods—it was criminal.

You have founded an organization, Beyond Brooke, which seeks to provide elder-abuse education and empower seniors. What do you tell seniors about how to protect themselves against financial abuse?

It’s back to engaging in relationships and making sure you’ve got people in your life who will watch your back. It sometimes takes just one person or three or five people in your life who are checking in—and cultivating those relationships.

Seniors are often encouraged to designate a power of attorney to carry out their wishes if they become incapacitated. Yet this can also open the door to elder abuse. What’s your advice on designating a power of attorney?

I filed for guardianship because my father had power of attorney for his mother, which he was using as a weapon and a shield. I would say have two agents, for starters. It’s a check and balance system. And one could be a professional. If folks happen to have a trust or two, make sure there’s a professional fiduciary as a trustee, so you’ve got this check and balance.

There’s so much power of attorney abuse. And as a reminder, power of attorney abuse is criminal. People are being told it’s a civil issue, and that’s not true.

Your grandmother was abused while she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. What should be done to protect people with dementia from elder abuse?

That’s where folks in the financial industry and in health care need to talk. When someone has mild cognitive impairment, they’re potentially still able to do financial [tasks] and have testamentary capacity. But there’s this huge grey zone between mild cognitive impairment and advanced Alzheimer’s. It’s really difficult to figure out when to act.

There are three things we usually don’t like talking about: health, wealth and death. And perpetrators know this is to their advantage. So we have to throw these right on the table. Generally speaking, people are relieved when their families talk about these critical issues.

Eleanor Laise
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Retirement Report
Laise covers retirement issues ranging from income investing and pension plans to long-term care and estate planning. She joined Kiplinger in 2011 from the Wall Street Journal, where as a staff reporter she covered mutual funds, retirement plans and other personal finance topics. Laise was previously a senior writer at SmartMoney magazine. She started her journalism career at Bloomberg Personal Finance magazine and holds a BA in English from Columbia University.