Conviction of Astor's Son Helps Other Financial Elder Abuse Cases

Advocates for the elderly say the conviction of Anthony D. Marshall on charges of financially abusing his mother, legendary New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, gives a boost to the prosecution of similar but lower-profile cases around the nation.

Marshall, 85, was convicted of stealing from Astor as her capacity to make decisions deteriorated due to Alzheimer's disease. Astor died in 2007 at age 105. After deliberating for 12 days, a New York City jury found Marshall guilty of 14 of the 16 counts against him, including persuading his mother to make changes to her will that greatly benefited him, and abusing his power of attorney by giving himself a $1 million retroactive raise. Marshall, who might appeal, could be sentence to anywhere from one to 25 years in prison. Francis X. Morrisey Jr., a lawyer who did estate planning work for Astor, was also convicted on multiple counts, including forging Astor's signature on a codicil to her will.

While the high-profile Astor case involved an estate estimated at more than $180 million, it is similar to thousands of other cases of reported financial abuse. A recent study by MetLife found that up to one million older Americans are targeted by financial abuse yearly, and family members and caregivers are most often the culprits. "We see a lot of cases where the kids help themselves with the intention of paying the money back," New York City ElderLawAnswers member attorney Bernard Krooks told Consumer Reports following the verdict. "It becomes a bad habit."

But law enforcement officials have been reluctant to prosecute such crimes, which can be difficult to prove and complex for juries to comprehend. The success in the Astor case should give district attorneys around the nation more incentive to set up elder abuse units, such as the one in Manhattan that pursued Marshall, and to prosecute such crimes.

Craig Reaves, past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, termed Marshall's conviction on nearly all the charges "a huge victory." Speaking to the New York Times, Reaves noted that the verdict "may be the impetus to get the Elder Justice Act passed by Congress." First introduced six years ago, the Act provides federal money for elder abuse prosecution and is included in the health reform bill about to be voted on by the Senate Finance Committee.

Lori Stiegel, senior attorney at the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging, told the Times that a failure to win a conviction in the Astor case "could have been perceived as reinforcing the notion that these cases are just too difficult to bring and that juries will have trouble understanding the issues. . . . It will help prosecutors understand that yes, they can successfully bring these complex and challenging cases -- and this one was extremely complex and challenging."

The Astor case now shifts to a Westchester County (New York) probate court, where a civil case is pending on whether Astor's assets should be distributed according to her most recent will, executed in 2002, or an earlier version. If Astor is found to have been mentally competent when she signed the 2002 will, which was amended in 2003 and 2004, the amount of money she left to New York charities, including the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would be reduced by tens of millions of dollars. The probate court case had been postponed pending the resolution of the criminal case against Marshall and it is unclear how a possible appeal by Marshall would affect it.

For an ElderLawAnswers article on "Tips for Preventing, Detecting, and Reporting Financial Abuse of the Elderly," click here.