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Family Matters: Financial Elder Abuse

As summer begins to dawn, we sit sandwiched between the parental holidays.  Still reflecting on the seemingly fresh passing of Jim Sr. provides a bittersweet contemplation for upcoming Father’s Day.  As most of the over- age 40 readers can sympathize, losing a parent or caring for elderly ones is inevitable.  It’s disheartening to hear stories of elder abuse by supposed, trusted family members.   Be it emotional, physical or financial, these harrowing acts seem unfathomable.   While the first 2 might be wading into depths beyond my lifeguard level, we can share some insight unto financial abuse, the tell-tale signs and precautionary measures.

Financial elder abuse can take many forms.  Culprits include not only family, but friends, care givers and unscrupulous financial advisors (not me).   This fertile seedbed is cultivated by an aging population, longer life spans, and rising dementia rates. Additionally, we are seeing higher portfolio stress due to rising healthcare costs, low interest rates, stagnant social security benefits & a decline in defined benefit pension plans.  Shady advisors know this and know how to exploit it.  {Hint: ‘free’ dinners at Don Hall’s.}

Consider that the firm, True Link, published a 2015 study estimating the true costs of elder abuse over $35 billion annually.  That number may be way too low as evidenced by a New York state survey estimating only 1 in 44 cases involving financial abuse is even reported.  Many times the elderly may be too embarrassed to admit being had.  Or, they simply love/trust the family member too much to turn them in.  Sure, there are some murky areas where mistreatment is difficult to pin point.  After all, one person’s ‘abuse’ can be another’s ‘inheritance’.

Warning Signs

·         Client struggles to process information and basic concepts.  Experiences abnormal memory loss; denies recent conversations.  I can commiserate after a long weekend.

·         Suddenly doesn’t understand simple transactions.  Balancing checkbook, reading statements, dividends paid etc.

·         Abruptly brings in ill-qualified members to financial meetings & turns over financial management to them.   Said member seems too eager to control finances.

·         Makes contradictory & erratic decisions. Refuses to follow prudent financial advice.

·         Becomes highly suspicious of ‘missing’ funds; leery of trusting anyone. Or…

·         Becomes easily susceptible to slick financial, charitable or home improvement pitches.

·         Caregiver doesn’t allow client to speak freely or refuses to meet.

Precautionary Measures

A potential starting point is to gather all care givers/family members and hire a trusted elder-law attorney and/or qualified estate planning CPA.   The attorney can draft the necessary documents such as medical directive, durable power of attorney for healthcare & finances, update will & trusts.  This, in effect, puts everyone on notice and can create an invisible safety fence.  Bank & investment accounts can be re-titled with joint ownership.  If that is not agreeable, duplicate statements can be sent out to responsible members for an extra set of eyes.

Possibly the best preventative tonic is early communication with the loved one.  Don’t wait until mental capacity is compromised.  Discuss their needs, wishes and goals before it’s too late.  Aging is cruel enough without the angst of financial and familial divisiveness.   And it never hurts to tell your parents you love them.