Artist Peter Max was recently the subject of an extensive investigative piece in the New York Times about financial exploitation surrounding the popular painter. Max is 81 years old and struggles with dementia. The article detailed how the artist had not produced art in four years, but that reality did nothing to slow down the production of Peter Max paintings. Last year, Peter Max’s art studio netted more than $30 million in profits, mostly through cruise line art sales of Peter Max creations.

peter max elder abuse
Peter Max, Artist

The problem, according to the Times, is that Max did nothing more than sign the works, while other painters created them. Max, per the report, has not been able to paint since at least 2012. His dementia has progressed to the point that he does not know what year it is or understand the concept of being interviewed by a reporter. He went on cruises to promote art sales until he became too exhausted and confused, even soiling himself at one point.

Peter Max’s son, Adam Max, took the helm of his studio, claiming his father asked him to take over active management. Peter oversaw a turnaround that took the studio from bankruptcy to a thriving business based on selling new Peter Max paintings.

Peter Max’s Wife Files For Guardianship

When Peter’s much-younger wife, Mary Max, filed for guardianship over her husband in 2015, she claimed that Adam had effectively kidnapped Peter, repeatedly moving him and concealing his location from family and friends. Mary won the right to return Peter home to live with her, with an independent guardian being appointed to manage his affairs. Despite her victory, reports surfaced that Mary too was accused of mistreating her husband, demanding more money, threatening divorce, withholding food, and even serving him hidden “large Brazil nuts” in smoothies, presenting an obvious choking hazard.

Through it all, Peter Max kept “working”, signing his names to paintings and generating tens of millions of dollars annually.

The story was similar for the late Marvel Comics legend, Stan Lee, who also battled dementia before he died at age 95. He was squarely at the center of a power-struggle between his daughter, a former publicist, and a collector-turned-business parter to Stan Lee, named Keya Morgan. Lee was the subject of an elder abuse court proceeding that led to the appointment of an attorney to serve as guardian at litem to protect him. While we wrote an article calling for a conservator to be appointed to protect Stan Lee, he died a few months later, before anyone filed for conservatorship. The attorney remained as Lee’s protector until the end.The true extent of the financial abuse has only recently been revealed. Authorities in Los Angeles took the unusual step of charging Morgan criminally for elder abuse of Stan Lee. Morgan was recently arrested for false imprisonment, grand theft from an elder, and elder abuse. For example, he is charged with pocketing $262,000 in autograph sales from Lee. Morgan is also accused of mishandling more than $5 million, exerting undue influence, and moving Lee from his home to isolate him.

Peter Max & Stan Lee: Financial Elder Abuse Not Limited to the Rich and Famous

The consistent theme of both Peter Max and Stan Lee — exploiting an elderly adult suffering from dementia, even to the point of kidnapping and isolating him from friends and family — is sadly one that is not limited to the rich and famous. Financial elder abuse is an epidemic in our country. Studies have difficulty determining exactly how common financial elder abuse is because it is often under-reported, but various studies conclude that it occurs to between 2.7% to 6.6% of seniors annually. This means that between 1.3 and 3 million adults age 65+ fall victim to financial exploitation each year!

While the exact manner that both Peter Max and Stan Lee were allegedly exploited, through sales derived from their fame, may be uncommon, taking advantage of a senior’s diminished mental capacity from conditions such as dementia is not. Isolation, control over finances, and undue influence to drive a wedge between elders and their loved ones are consistent themes.

These tragedies happen to rich, poor, and all financial demographics in between. Ranging from common scams targeted to seniors, to direct exploitation and undue influence over vulnerable adults to bring about changes to wills, trusts, deeds, and bank accounts, financial elder abuse is the silent epidemic that no one thinks will happen in their family. But clearly, Peter Max and Stan Lee are far from alone.

So what can you do? Become educated and vigilant. Here are some common warning signs, from the AARP and the National Institute of Health.

And if you suspect elder abuse is occurring to a loved one, act quickly, with the help of adult protective services in your area, or the help of an experienced elder law or probate litigation attorney. For both Peter Max and Stan Lee, attorneys acted successfully to help protect them through court proceedings.

While no one wants to subject an elderly loved one to a guardianship, conservatorship, or similar protective court action, the alternative can often be far worse.  Mickey Rooney sure wished that he had been helped sooner, before he was left destitute.

Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, television hosts and keynote speakers. You can find them on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. For all the latest celebrity legal news, be sure to check out their blog.

[photo credit: Wikipedia, Wikipedia]



    Danielle Mayoras is an on-camera legal expert, attorney, author, and keynote speaker. As a respected media source, she has lent her expertise and analysis to hundreds of media sources, including The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, People, Forbes, Kiplinger, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, among many others. She has appeared on Access Hollywood, the Rachael Ray Show, The Insider, CNN, CNN International, NBC Nightly News, Forbes, The Hallmark Channel, ABC’s Live Well Network, FOX, PBS, and NBC affiliates. Danielle also serves as a legal analyst for CBS News Detroit.

    In addition to co-authoring the best-selling book Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, Danielle has been a contributor to Forbes and other outlets. Danielle has also appeared as a TV host and legal expert on multiple celebrity documentary series on the REELZ network. When not doing media, Danielle helps clients in her thriving law firm practice and serves as a keynote speaker delighting audiences across the country.