Family questions elderly father's marriage to caregiver

A probate case has been filed in Superior Court
Posted at 7:24 PM, Mar 29, 2018

SAN DIEGO (KGTV)- A local family contacted Team 10, concerned about the recent marriage of their elderly father to his new caregiver. 


In a petition filed in probate court through an attorney, the family of James Donald Hess accused his new wife and former caregiver of "physically and verbally abusing him, and asserting undue influence over him."


"It's just heartbreaking," said Dede Hess about her father-in-law. "I was just like, this isn't real."


Dede Hess said her father-in-law, known to many as Don, is not in the best health. In the petition, it said his "health steadily declined" after Don's second wife passed away in February 2016 and that he suffered from "depression and loneliness" and became dependent on in-home caregivers.


In the petition, it claimed that a caregiver named Nicky convinced Hess to marry her after just a few months. Hess and Nicky Shepard -- now Nicky Hess -- were married on October 14, 2017. Hess was 86-years-old. Nicky was 64. 


"I think of her as a shark that smelled the blood in the water," Dede Hess said.


RELATED: Resource guide for elderly San Diegans and families


Dede Hess also learned more about the past of her father-in-law's new bride. 


"When she met dad, she was married, but she was a newlywed," Dede Hess said. "Two weeks after her divorce was final, she married dad."


Team 10 found Nicky was divorced at least five times. 


The family alleged Nicky convinced her new elderly husband to "withdraw large sums of money from his investment accounts" and that she "forged [ his] name on documents," according to the petition.


It also said she placed his health "in extreme danger" by keeping medication from him or giving him too much. 


"I would love to see some justice on behalf of my father-in-law, especially if he's ill," Dede Hess said. 


Team 10 learned that Don Hess is now hospitalized. His family said his heart stopped for several minutes and he also suffered from renal failure and pneumonia.


The conflict brought both sides to probate court in mid-March where the judge acknowledged the difference of opinion regarding Mr. Hess's marriage. 


"I know that you have very different views about whether this is on one hand, a recent marriage of an elderly person to his caregiver and the vulnerability that that can present and the possibility of financial abuse versus, on the other hand, a person who is engaging in his right in his older years to find love and get married," said Judge Julia Kelety.


The petition is to remove Don Hess from the new trust made late last year. Hess's children claimed he was not competent at the time. 


The petition said the new trust "largely disinherits his natural children... in favor of Nicky." 


"The document was done in December so we have issues about its validity," said attorney Todd Stevens.


However, the attorney present for Don's side said that is not the case. 


"It appears to be a validly, executed trust by Mr. Hess," said attorney Lisa Frisella. Frisella said in court Mr. Hess went to a lawyer on his own and amended the trust. 


Team 10 visited the Hess home to get Nicky Hess's side of the story. 


She was home and did not want to talk in person. However, less than an hour later, Nicky called Team 10 and said over the phone: "All I need is love. I don't even think about his money. His kids did not approve our marriage." 


Team 10 asked about allegations of elder and financial abuse. Nicky Hess said, "No, no way. I never elderly abuse my husband. I love him so much."


In the petition response filed by Don's lawyer, it also denied any abuse and said the "children were more concerned about their inheritance than his happiness."


In court, Judge Kelety temporarily "suspended" Mrs. Nicky Hess as successor trustee until another court appearance scheduled for April 5th. 


It was a small victory for Dede Hess and the other Hess children, as they pray for their father's recovery.


"I don't want this to happen to anybody else," Dede Hess said. 


According to the National Council on Aging, elder financial abuse is likely underreported. A 2015 study found this type of abuse and fraud costs older Americans $36.5 billion a year.