We are seeing more financial abuse of aging parents than ever.
Why? Elders are living longer, but not necessarily in great health. The pervasive problem of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias can steal an elder’s financial judgment and make the person much more vulnerable to manipulation. Even if an elder is still competent, she may be subject to improper persuasion, called “undue influence” of a family member or other trusted person.
What is financial abuse? The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse defines it as the illegal or improper use of an older person’s funds, property, or resources. It can take many forms. There are red flags or warning signs you need to be aware of to help you take protective action to prevent or stop abuse.
Warning signs may include the following:
- Your aging parent has always had a trusted person whom he appointed as an agent on his Durable Power of Attorney forms some time ago. Suddenly, he changes and gives the DPOA power to a different person, and you question that new person’s motives and behavior.
- Your aging parent’s assets appear to be under the control of someone else who has stopped her from making any decisions about her money. Access is blocked and account names are changed. You suspect she is being taken advantage of.
- Your aging parent has memory loss issues and forgets what happened recently. He is easily manipulated by anyone whom he formerly trusted and is persuaded to make “loans” or gifts to a family member who uses his relationship to control the aging parent.
- A manipulative family member cuts off contact from others and isolates your aging parent. He does not have use of his phone without the manipulator listening in on the call. Visiting your aging parent is blocked and no one can see your elder outside the presence of the manipulator.
- A family member having control over your aging parent refuses to discuss your parent’s financial situation, how funds are being spent, and refuses anyone else’s requests for accountability on spending, withdrawals from the bank or other account and refuses to allow online access to financial statements to anyone else.
- A new “friend” suddenly appears in your aging parent’s life and says he/she is “in love” with your parent and wants them to get married. The “friend” is very interested in your aging parent’s finances and wants access to credit cards, the checkbook or other assets.
- Your aging parent is lonely and uses the internet for making contact with others. He/she becomes addicted to a particular caller who contacts him/her very frequently and asks for money. Your aging parent sends checks or wires funds to the abuser. These scammers are not typically family members but criminals who prey on the elderly.
Cause for Alarm
Here at AgingParents.com, we encounter many families who are very alarmed about situations like those in the warning signs described above. The worst problem we see is that family members suspect abuse but are afraid or hesitant to do anything out of fear of upsetting the aging parent or fear of a bullying sibling or other abusive family member.
Simply reporting elder abuse to Adult Protective Services or equivalent may not result in much action, as law enforcement does not prosecute such matters in every state, as it considers them “a civil matter”. That means no criminal charges are filed except in the most severe cases. When adult protective services calls abuse “a civil matter” it means that they are telling you that if you have a problem, you need to hire a civil attorney, pay attorneys’ fees out of your own pocket and it’s not their problem from a criminal law enforcement point of view. This is not fair, as most people would see it but it is reality.
What Can You Do When You Suspect Financial Abuse of Your Aging Parent?
1. Know the warning signs and be prepared to act on them. If you have a suspicious family member or person whom you think is abusing an aging parent or other loved one, do not sit idly by watching it happen. Make your best effort to stop the abuse.
2. Contact the authority often called Adult Protective Services. Communicate your suspicions with specifics. Make a record. A social worker is likely the first point of contact. Someone may investigate the situation but if your aging parent is intimidated into saying everything is fine, the investigating worker will simply take his/her word for it and do nothing. In some cases, actual prosecution does occur but it is more unusual than usual.
3. Band together as a family. Enroll those who can become your allies in confronting the abuser and meet him or her and state your concerns directly. If you have no willing family members, recruit a friend, clergy person, or trusted other to assist you.
4. Seek legal advice from a civil elder abuse attorney. A relatively small number of lawyers do this kind of work. Most estate planning attorneys do not go to court and will not involve themselves in these matters. However, those who hold themselves out as pursuing elder abuse cases do go to court and can be helpful sources to take action in court to stop abuse. Most require payment of fees for their services whether they are successful or not.
Financial abuse can be accompanied by other forms of abuse including physical and emotional aspects. If you have suspicions of physical harm to your aging parent, threats, intimidation, etc. seek legal advice immediately. In some cases, a court order can result in freezing of your aging parent’s bank account to stop theft, removal of an abusive person from your aging parent’s home and other protections a lawyer can seek for a vulnerable elder.