The Retirement Nightmare


Diane G. Armstrong, Ph.D. The Retirement Nightmare: How to Save Yourself from Your Heirs and Protectors. New York, NY: Prometheus. 2000. 405 pages.

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While an aging Sophocles was writing his play "Oedipus at Colonus," his sons tried to have him declared incompetent in an effort to gain control of his property. To prove his competence, Sophocles simply read from his play. The jury rose and amid great applause declared him competent. As The Retirement Nightmare makes clear, had Sophocles been pleading his case in America today, his sons probably would have left the courtroom in control of his property.

Guardianship or conservatorship laws were designed to protect us when we are no longer able to care for ourselves. In the somewhat misleadingly titled The Retirement Nightmare, Diane Armstrong makes the case that too often calculating heirs or would-be protectors in the social welfare community are using vague or outdated state guardianship statutes to wrest control of older persons' property against their will.

Armstrong has no shortage of horror stories to relate. Much of the book describes case after case in which completely competent individuals suddenly found themselves under the legal control of grasping relatives or professional guardians, sometimes without the elderly person even knowing what was happening until it was too late. In many states, Armstrong notes, the elderly can be declared incompetent on the basis of old age alone. Meanwhile, the guardians who take over their lives typically receive less state scrutiny than do barbers.

Armstrong, a clinical psychologist by training, first learned about the potential for guardianship abuse from personal experience, which is why she wrote this book. In the introduction, she relates the nightmare tale of her mother who was forced to prove her competence in court against four of her seven children, an ordeal that consumed 18 months of her mother's life and more than $1 million in legal fees.

As Armstrong points out, the stakes are growing. By one estimate, the baby boomers stand to inherit $11 trillion from their savings-minded parents. "If our codes as they exist today are not changed in substantive ways," Armstrong writes, "eleven trillion dollars will surely inspire a rising tide of conservatorship/guardianship litigation as alienated or envious heir-petitioners seek to direct this massive flow of accumulated wealth from an older generation to themselves before it vanishes."

In the book's most valuable chapters, Armstrong makes extensive recommendations about how state guardianship laws should be changed to protect the elderly from abuse, and the steps we all can take today to ensure that we do not join those who have been victimized by the misuse of guardianship laws.

The Retirement Nightmare is amply footnoted and contains synopses of state guardianship/conservatorship codes and statutes.

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