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My aunt stole my mother’s Social Security, and persuaded my elderly father to sign over power of attorney

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Dear Moneyist,

My mother’s sister is using my mother’s Social Security Number to avoid having to pay the Internal Revenue Service back taxes she owes. My aunt owes the IRS a bunch of money and believes the IRS would take it if it were in her name. She is currently receiving money under my deceased mother’s Social Security Number.

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My father was recently very sick and in the hospital, and he was not in his right mind. She somehow persuaded him to sign away power of attorney during the time he was in hospital. He thought it was 2058 and he was in jail. Obviously he had no idea what he was signing.

She then took the document to a friend who signed and notarized it. Is there anything I can do to stop her from changing his beneficiaries and emptying his bank accounts?

Feeling Powerless

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Dear Powerless,

There’s a lot you can do, and you should do it as soon as possible. You cannot allow this to continue and, in order to do that, you must release yourself from any feelings associated with the consequences your aunt will face. What she’s doing is unethical and illegal. She’s stealing money from your late mother’s Social Security and, likely, from your father. She is either unwilling or unable to pay her taxes, and has no remorse about her own part in that. She has simply moved on to the next grift.

Your aunt may regard this as a series of unfortunate events, and believe she is entitled to other people’s money, but this is part of a pattern that will not end until you contact your father’s bank, the Social Security Administration and the IRS to put an end to it. Enlist a family lawyer that specializes in conservatorship and estate law, and challenge her power of attorney. Petition a court to have yourself appointed instead. You need to remove this woman from your lives and your family’s finances. Imagine she is a burglar who crept into your house in the dead of night — because through forged paperwork and coercion, that’s exactly what she’s done.

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There are 1 million cases of elder abuse reported to the National Adult Protective Services Association per year, a small fraction of overall cases. Your father was not of sound mind when he signed over power of attorney. Under the law, your father must have been of sound mind and not under or subject to duress, restraint, fraud or undue influence to sign a power of attorney document. The National Center on Elder Abuse, a government agency affiliated with the U.S. Administration on Aging, reports that elder abuse lags by as much as “two decades” behind research into other areas of familiar and domestic abuse.

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I’ll tell you what I told the woman whose mother who spent thousands of dollars on credit cards opened in her name: Someone who indulges in this kind of “familiar fraud” is banking on protection and/or a safety net from those family connections. If you confront her, you are likely to be told some kind of sob story and complex list of resentments about your family’s history that will be used to justify this behavior and pluck at your heartstrings. Put a stop to this before it goes any further.

I spoke to six white-collar felons a number of years ago, and they told me that they committed their crimes because they had financial worries or because they were following orders. Others say they were people pleasers trying to help out family members or were helping themselves maintain the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. One faced the courage to do time after watching Martha Stewart on television, looking happy and successful after her own stint in prison.

Make those calls today.

If someone has misused your Social Security number or other personal information to create credit or other problems for you, Social Security says it can’t resolve these problems. But you can IdentityTheft.gov to report identity theft and get a recovery plan. It is managed by the Federal Trade Commission. You can also call 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338); Telecommunications device for the deaf: 1-866-653-4261.

Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at [email protected].

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