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Watch for signs of financial elder abuse

When she was more than 100 years old, onetime New York socialite Brooke Astor became America's most famous case of financial elder abuse.

The late millionaire socialite Brooke Astor and grandson Philip Marshall.
The late millionaire socialite Brooke Astor and grandson Philip Marshall.Read more

When she was more than 100 years old, onetime New York socialite Brooke Astor became America's most famous case of financial elder abuse.

Her son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted of stealing tens of millions of dollars of her assets. Her grandson Philip Marshall testified against his father and helped put him in jail.

Today, Philip Marshall does speaking engagements around the country, talking about the red flags of such abuse.

"For years, my battle for my grandmother, and my battle against my father, consumed my life - and consumed our family," he said.

Last week, Marshall received an award from CARIE, the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly, based in Philadelphia.

Astor died in 2007 at age 105. In 2009, after his father's six-month criminal trial, Philip Marshall said, he realized that when elder abuse hits home, it hurts deeply.

"While my grandmother was emotionally and financially abused, her case is far from isolated. Millions of victims suffer similar injury. I watched my grandmother's world diminished and compromised by her own son, my father."

Anthony Marshall, a former U.S. ambassador and Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, died in 2014 after being convicted of conning his mother into altering her will so he could gain control of her fortune, estimated at $200 million. He then disinherited his two children, Philip and Alexander, whose testimony helped put him in prison for swindling his mother, who had Alzheimer's disease.

"After my father's trial and after heart-wrenching testimony, this was a very bittersweet harvest," Philip Marshall recalled.

In February 2015, Marshall testified before the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on Aging. Then he took a leave from teaching at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island to become an elder-justice advocate.

"Awareness and advocacy are critical," he says. "I could have disregarded calls for help from staff, caregivers, and friends. I could have found false consolation in thinking my grandmother had had a good life and, in the throes of dementia, wasn't cognizant of her circumstances. I could have maintained the fallacy that families should not air their dirty linen in public - even when financial assets are being stolen."

He wants banks to monitor accounts owned by seniors, much as brokerage firms monitor customer accounts.

"Wall Street is way ahead of big banks on this," Marshall says. "If Grandma is cashing $25,000 checks to a brand-new person, the banks should take note. They can use data mining to flag unusual transactions."

Banks can report to law enforcement and Adult Protective Services, or share with a third party, a practice known as permissive reporting.

One model is Senior$afe in Maine, spearheaded by Judith Shaw, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association.

Senior$afe is a collaborative effort by Maine regulators, financial institutions, and legal organizations that educates bank and credit union employees on how to identify and help stop financial exploitation of older adults.

Astor, once a society doyenne, lived her final years mostly on a urine-soaked couch in her drafty Park Avenue apartment, Philip Marshall revealed in a 2006 lawsuit.

Priceless paintings, promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, went missing or were sold by Anthony Marshall. Astor's son also forced his mother to sign codicils to her will, while at same time trying to declare her mentally incompetent.

"My father had power of attorney, and he used that as a weapon and a shield, starting by writing himself big checks," Philip Marshall recalls.

The amounts were so large that "these were irregular transactions on a bank account, which could have been detected and alerted her financial institution."

Anthony Marshall was Brooke Astor's only son, from her second marriage to Charles Marshall. After she was widowed, she married millionaire businessman William Vincent Astor and became a philanthropic powerhouse and a pillar of New York society. She inherited Astor's personal fortune of $60 million, as well as the Astor Foundation money, donating to causes and institutions in New York City over the years.

Other things that raised red flags?

"She was led to believe she didn't have any money. She was asking permission to buy things. Through the staff and caregivers, I found out she thought she was running out of money, and that things had to be sold," Philip Marshall said.

Baby boomers in particular need to advocate for the elderly, he adds, since "we're not in the Sixties anymore, we're in our 60s."

"We can effect a transformation now as great as what we did then. We benefit, and the next generation will too."