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How a Power of Attorney May Protect You From Being a Victim of a "True Crime"

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Reviewed by Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Plenty of "true crime" stories involve abuse of power of attorney, where a crooked agent takes advantage of an unsuspecting (usually aging) person. These stories are generally terrifying, as it is easy to imagine ourselves being taken advantage of in a similar way. Fortunately, there is good news. Did you know a power of attorney document could help you or someone you love from being a victim of fraud?

The Crime

A particularly gruesome example of POA abuse recently occurred in California. In March, a woman was sentenced to 20 years for forging a power of attorney document. The woman, Caroline Herrling, created a power of attorney for an older man, Charles Wilding, and moved into his Sherman Oaks, CA, home in 2020. Charles Wilding was a recluse and lived with his mother until she died in 2017. It is suspected that Wilding died around September 2020, although authorities do not know the cause of death. Herrling and her co-conspirators lived in Wilding’s home as his body decomposed. Herrling used the fraudulent power of attorney to steal his property and assets and forged a will to become a trustee for an estate benefiting Wilding, valued at $1.7 million.

The Investigation

Neighbors began suspecting that something was amiss and notified police in December 2020. Police did a welfare check and were told by Herrling that Wilding had moved to the Carpinteria/Santa Barbara area. Despite looking into the house, they didn’t find anything. They tried to get in touch with Wilding but got no response.

Around the same time, Adult Protective Services investigated and connected with a man claiming he was Wilding and currently living in Carpinteria. They closed their case.

But the investigators did not give up. Suspecting that Herrling wasn’t being honest, they pressed her to give them a good contact number or address for Wilding. They spoke with a man claiming to be Wilding, but the man could not provide his social security number or driver’s license number.

The Gory Aftermath

Knowing that the authorities were getting more suspicious, Herrling, with others, transported Wilding’s body to her apartment in West LA and tried to dissolve his body with chemicals. However, that did not work, so Herrling and her accomplices dismembered the body and disposed of the body parts in San Francisco Bay. Wilding’s remains have not been recovered.

Unfortunately, this was not Herrling's only victim. She was suspected of defrauding another victim out of his house to the tune of $1.5 million by forging documents. Unfortunately, the victim who had mental health issues died by suicide after losing his home.

The Punishment

Police arrested Herrling in January 2023. She pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and was sentenced on March 15, 2024, to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $3.88 million in restitution.

How Does a Power of Attorney Help?

In this and other crime syndicates, bad people prey on older adults, reclusives, and people with mental disabilities. If the victims had a power of attorney, meaning someone they trust to manage their affairs, their agents could prevent fraudulent activity.

What Is a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney is a legal document authorizing someone you trust as your “agent” to handle your financial, legal, and medical affairs. Your agent has a fiduciary duty to act in good faith and in your best interest. When choosing an agent for your power of attorney, look for an organized, responsible, and trustworthy person. They should be attentive to your affairs and look out for fraudulent activity against your property and assets.

You use a financial power of attorney to appoint someone to handle your financial decisions and legal affairs. They may do things such as pay bills, open mail, access your bank accounts, and file your tax returns. They may also buy and sell your property.

You use a healthcare power of attorney when you are unable to handle your medical care and healthcare decisions. It is also called a health care directive, advance directive, or living will. In your healthcare power of attorney, you designate an agent to access your medical records, speak to healthcare providers, and follow your instructions regarding your end-of-life wishes.

What Is the Alternative to a Power of Attorney?

If a family member or loved one cannot manage their own affairs due to an illness or disability and they did not make a power of attorney, you can still take steps to protect them. By petitioning for a conservatorship, you are asking a court to appoint a conservator to handle the legal, financial, and healthcare for your loved one. The conservator has the same duties and responsibilities as an agent to act in the best interest of your loved one. However, an action for conservatorship takes time in court and attorney fees, so it is better if your loved one makes a power of attorney.

How Do I Make a Power of Attorney?

When making a power of attorney, you should know who you want to serve as your agent and what powers you want to give them. Many people looking for do-it-yourself options use online power of attorney forms that conform to their state laws. However, if you do not know who your agent should be or have other questions about POAs, you should consult a local estate planning attorney.

If Charles Wilding had appointed a trustworthy agent under a power of attorney, his agent would know that people were moving into his house (and that he died, of course). They could prevent Wilding’s horrific situation from being turned into a true crime podcast. If you or a loved one are vulnerable to fraud or abuse, look into power of attorney documents to help.

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