Stan Lee Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore
Elder Financial Abuse is one of the fastest growing crimes in America.
One in 10 translates into a staggering 5 million people.
Here is another shocking statistic: Only one in 44 cases of abuse is ever reported.
Elder financial abuse is generally a silent crime whose victims are unable to speak out. I see it every day in my law practice.
Through this podcast - Tales of Elder Financial Abuse - I hope we can start to turn the tide. To stop elder financial abuse, we first need to know how to spot elder financial abuse.
This podcast will put a spotlight on elder financial abuse through highlighting some high-profile cases in the news.
Once you see it and understand how it happens, you'll know better what to do when you suspect that a senior is being financially abused.
This is Stan Lee.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore
At 95, Stan looks to be in very good shape, as he enjoys his golden years as one of America's most beloved personalities.
You've probably seen him dozens of times through the cameo appearances he's made in superhero movies like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy and even the recently released Black Panther.
Lee created some of the most famous comic book characters of all time, including the Hulk, Doctor Strange, The Fantastic Four and Ant-Man. He wrote, edited and published Marvel Comics, growing what was a tiny comic book company in 1939 into an industry behemoth now owned by Disney.
Along the path to fame and success, Stan Lee had, by all accounts, a rich and fulfilling life. In 1947, he married Joan Boocock, a model and voice actress, and together they had a daughter named Joan Celia (aka JC) in 1950. Joan was Stan's inspiration and devoted companion for nearly 70 years, until she died on July 6th, 2017 at the age of 95.
After decades of marriage, the passing of a husband or wife is deeply traumatic. Your loved one is gone forever from this life - and nothing will ever be the same. Add to that the fact that losing a life partner when someone is in their 90's often results in isolation and depression. The so-called "widowhood effect" is a pattern noticed by psychologists which points out that there is a much greater risk of mortality right after a long-time spouse has died.
It is little wonder that people in Stan Lee's position often withdraw both physically and emotionally, and don't pay as much attention to the acts and deeds of people around them. They become easy prey for financial predators.
In a best-case scenario, an elderly and successful couple will have made financial arrangements well before they reach their 90's. They will have put all their major assets into a Trust. They will have checks and balances on their accounts, so that no one can gain control without alarm bells going off. They will have trusted professionals managing their financial affairs - reputable CPA's, Attorneys and Money Managers, all of whom are accountable to others.
Setting up a system of checks and balances isn't easy or inexpensive, but it is the only way to safeguard wealth and assets, and the only way to ensure that the real beneficiaries of an estate will ultimately inherit.
In Stan Lee's case, it looks like he tried to do the right thing. By one estimate from CBR.com, Lee accrued a net worth in the neighborhood of $50 Million, and to this day continues to draw a $1 Million annual salary from Marvel. He and his wife set up a trust to take care of their daughter, JC, who, by their accounts, had problems handling her own financial affairs.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Lee's current problems began back in February 2018 when he had an argument with his 67-year old daughter, JC. After that argument, Lee went to the office of his attorney, Tom Lallas, a specialist in business torts, and signed a declaration appending his trust.
Here is a quote from the article:
The Feb. 13 document, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, begins with some background, explaining that Lee and his late wife had arranged a trust for their daughter because she had trouble supporting herself and often overspent. "It is not uncommon for J.C. to charge, in any given month, $20,000 to $40,000 on credit cards, sometimes more," the document states. It goes on to describe how, when he and his daughter disagree - "which is often" - she "typically yells and screams at me and cries hysterically if I do not capitulate."
Lee explains that J.C. will, "from time to time," demand changes to her trust, including the transfer of properties into her name. He has resisted such changes, he states, because they "would greatly increase the likelihood of her greatest fear: that after my death, she will become homeless and destitute."
The declaration then explicates how three men with "bad intentions" - Jerardo "Jerry" Olivarez, Keya Morgan and J.C.'s attorney, Kirk Schenck - had improperly influenced his daughter, a woman with "very few adult friends." The document claims the trio has "insinuated themselves into relationships with J.C. for an ulterior motive and purpose": to take advantage of Lee and "gain control over my assets, property and money."
Despite all the above, a few days later, Lallas was removed as Lee's attorney. In the weeks that followed, a new accountant was hired, and a housekeeper and gardener who had worked for Lee for decades were fired. This flurry of activity was noticed by news reporters who openly speculated that Stan Lee was, or was becoming, the victim of elder financial abuse.
On April 12, Stan Lee was in front of a camera telling the world that he was not being mistreated, and anyone who said otherwise should expect to hear from his attorney. Here's the TMZ.com video clip:
But then, after Stan's blistering attack on people who claimed he was being financially taken advantage of, the very next day new attorneys, Jonathan Freund and Craig Huber from the Beverly Hills law firm of Freund and Brackey, filed a law suit against a former business manager, a man named Jerardo Olivarez, as well as a non-profit that was allegedly using funds Lee hadn't approved, as well as up to 25 other people (so-called DOES) whom he could not yet identify.
Here's a copy of the complaint.
Where this case will ultimately go is anyone's guess. From reports in the New York Times and other news sources, Olivarez is or was a partner with Lee's daughter. Stan Lee did not sue his daughter directly, but this suit appears to be a shot across the bow.
The other disturbing fact about this case is that Lee appears to be looked after by Keya Morgan, a 36-year-old producer, director, entrepreneur, gallery owner, and now full-time caretaker of Stan Lee.
Here is a video from YouTube showing Stan Lee signing autographs for fans at the Silicon Valley Comic Con on April 10th, three days before the video denying elder financial abuse, and two days before Lee filed a lawsuit alleging elder financial abuse.
Mr. Morgan is heard in the video telling Stan how to spell his name:
"Stan Lee - S T A N L E E"
Because I have not met any of the principals and have not seen any information that isn't already in the public domain, I'm certainly not qualified to determine if Stan Lee is or is not currently a victim of elder financial abuse.
I do note that someone who has dementia, or Alzheimer's Disease, or some other degenerative brain condition, may believe that they are perfectly normal. If you say you're fine, you're fine, right?
Maybe not. A common problem with all kinds of diseases of the brain is that the victim has no idea that there's anything wrong. The National Alliance on Mental Illness ("NAMI") identifies something called Anosognosia as "a common symptom of certain mental illnesses, perhaps the most difficult to understand for those who never experienced it." This condition causes someone with particular illnesses, like dementia, to have a "lack of insight: or "lack of awareness." NAMI reports without a self-image "update, we're stuck with our old self-image from before the illness started. Since our perceptions feel accurate, we conclude that our loved ones are lying or making a mistake. If family and friends insist they're right, the person with an illness may get frustrated or angry, or begin to avoid them."
Since we often litigate estate, trust and elder financial abuse cases we constantly hear about how cognitively impaired seniors are imagining events that simply don't exist. This is frustrating to the senior whose convinced of a fiction and family members who often have little or no understanding of the cause of the imagined wrongs.
Does anyone know whether that's happening with Stan Lee? Who knows? That is certainly an issue that the litigation will address.
The case of Stan Lee raises a huge number of red flags for me: The man has recently fired long-time advisors. He has one person who appears to be managing all his financial affairs. He is estranged from his nearest living relative, his daughter, and appears to have no other close family. He seems to have already lost a significant amount of money from people around him who have transferred assets. And the most recent videos of him seem to raise more questions than they answer.
If a case like Lee's was presented to me it strikes me that first and foremost, the elder's health, is the immediate concern. Primary care physicians, neurologists and specialists in geriatric psychiatry and neuropsychology are often called upon to assess the elder's mental health. Impaired cognitive ability as well as vulnerability to undue influence would need to be looked at. If the elder is sufficiently impaired and there are loved ones or others with standing to seek court intervention, a petition to the local Probate Court to appoint an independent and professional trustee to oversee the elder's trust and finances might be advisable.
Whatever Mr. Lee's condition, it does seem tragic that a 95-year-old legend is embroiled in litigation.
Our society is working toward the implementation of procedures and passing of new laws to protect people like Stan Lee, whether they are rich and famous, or not.
When it comes to America's elders we don't want to turn a blind eye to these situations and hope it all works out.
My experience teaches me that immediate intervention is both necessary and important. That said it is not easily done. Many families will attest to that.
Let's hope that Stan Lee is protected and any future harm to him is prevented. People of good will surely prefer that he be remembered as a Hollywood legend and not as a victim of elder financial abuse.