Mickey Rooney, the Hollywood child star who became an industry legend, appearing in more than 300 films during a career that spanned over 90 years, died allegedly a victim of elder and power of attorney abuse and financial exploitation – his estate having been allegedly wrenched from him by a family member that he had trusted. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence among America’s seniors, and Rooney’s story demonstrates just how dire the consequences can be when the abuse goes unrecognized.
In a 2011 complaint filed against his stepson, Christopher Aber, it was alleged that Aber, whom Rooney had entrusted with the management of a company that had been formed to handle all of the actor’s professional affairs, had assigned himself 49% of the stock in the corporation and named himself treasurer without Rooney’s knowledge or consent. The complaint further alleged Aber used his position to take control of Rooney’s revenue and residuals, restricted Rooney from accessing his funds, and funneled the actor’s money into accounts with which Aber had taken command. Aber, it was alleged, listed himself as an account owner and as a signatory on all of Rooney’s personal and company checking and savings accounts. It was also claimed that Aber arranged for the issuance of an ATM debit card and opened numerous credit card accounts that Rooney did not know about. Millions of dollars were transferred to fuel Aber and his family’s profligate lifestyle and Rooney’s credit was damaged, according to the complaint. When Rooney questioned Aber regarding his finances, he was allegedly bullied into silence. To keep Rooney from getting any glimpse of the damage that he was inflicting, Aber allegedly set up a P.O. Box and diverted all of the actor’s mail to it. Rooney pleaded with Aber as to the whereabouts of his mail, but Aber refused to tell him. The stepson also manipulated Rooney, according to the complaint, using verbal abuse, humiliation, and threats—including the foreclosure of his house and the loss of his medical benefits—if he did not comply with Aber’s desires. It was claimed Rooney was coerced into signing over his power of attorney to Aber, as well as being badgered into performing at engagements that Aber had committed him to. Even as Rooney continued to work and bring money in, he was allegedly told that his finances were in shambles and that he was constantly at risk of losing everything.
In 2011, during filming of The Muppets, Rooney revealed his desperate situation to a Disney executive, which eventually led to the appointment of a court-appointed conservator and a restraining order against Aber and his wife. At that point, the conservator found Rooney owned only a single pair of shoes, was missing all of his identification and medical insurance cards, and could not access his money to even buy food or medication. According to the complaint, Rooney felt he could not even leave his home of his own free will. The conservator tried to bring criminal charges against Aber, but the Ventura County Sheriff's Department declined to take the case to the district attorney, ruling it a civil matter. The conservator sued Aber, claiming that he had stolen $8.5 million from Rooney. A $2.8 million settlement was eventually agreed upon, but it was unenforceable. Aber, who claims that he is innocent, has refused to pay any of it. Sadly, Rooney was forced to sell his home. In June 2012, the conservator received court approval to have Rooney moved into a rental home under the care of Aber’s brother, Mark. Mark and his wife took care of Rooney until his death on April 6, 2014. They were made sole beneficiaries of Rooney’s estate, which totaled a paltry $18,000.
The Rooney case exhibited many of the classic red flags of elder and power of attorney abuse. When a loved one becomes dependent on a new caregiver, signs that abuse could be occurring, include:
- Full and complete dependence upon the perpetrator and isolation from others. An overseer that Rooney’s conservator appointed to supervise the actor described the anxiety that Aber’s mere presence would evoke in Rooney. According to the complaint, Aber also would not let Rooney go to the grocery store or even order his own groceries for delivery. He was made to rely on Aber or his wife, who delivered groceries once every 3-4 weeks.
- A lack of care or a shortage of basic necessities like food, clothes, and medication. Rooney’s complaint alleged that he had been reduced to eating canned food while Aber and his wife were away on vacation.
- Sudden and/or unusual changes in financial habits, including the opening of new credit card accounts, significant expenditures and reductions in funds, unpaid bills, and the issuance of numerous collection notices.
When Rooney testified before the Senate Special Aging Committee in 2011 on elder abuse, he described being “scared, disappointed, angry…overwhelmed” when he realized the true nature of his situation. There are several ways to stop and even prevent this type of abuse in most instances. Many states and counties offer governmental services focused on investigating and preventing elder abuse. Sometimes these services are helpful and others times they are not. If the matter involves financial elder abuse, it’s best to consult with an attorney with expertise in power of attorney, estates, trusts, and similar financial elder abuse related litigation.