Elderly people, especially those in need of regular care, have always been vulnerable to abuse. In the difficult economic climate of the past several years, that has increasingly included financial abuse. Unlike physical abuse, in which bruises or broken bones might alert loved ones that something untoward is occurring, financial abuse may be more subtle, and may not be discovered until irreparable damage is done. Here are some tips for preventing, recognizing, and responding to financial abuse of an elderly loved one.
Five Tips for Preventing Financial Abuse of the Elderly
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowhere is this more true than in the case of financial abuse; it's much easier to keep assets from disappearing than it is to recover them once they're gone. To prevent elder financial abuse:
- Visit regularly and often. This will let you evaluate the integrity of paid caregivers, let the caregivers know the older person has someone looking out for him or her, and give you the opportunity to detect any financial problems before they've gone too far.
- Be a second set of eyes. If your loved one will give you access to his or her accounts, either online or via copies of statements, you can monitor them for suspicious activity. You may also become a joint signatory on the account. If you do, keep meticulous records of any activity so no one accuses YOU of wrongdoing. With joint accounts, if one owner dies, the other becomes the legal owner of account assets, so this may not be an ideal solution.
- Establish a revocable trust. A revocable trust for the benefit of the elderly person allows a trusted friend or relative to access the accounts held in trust and step in without court involvement in case the elderly person becomes incapacitated, but does not give the trustee ownership rights as a jointly held account would.
- Help with paying bills. If you help an elderly loved one pay their bills, you'll be able to see that all bills are paid timely and in full and prevent them from paying anything that they shouldn't. You'll also be able to identify and discard questionable solicitations.
- Eliminate risks. Cut potential financial abusers off before they can even reach your loved one: put him or her on a “do not call” registry, prevent robocalls from solicitors and telemarketers, and opt out of mail solicitations. Post a good old-fashioned “no soliciting” sign on your loved one's property to discourage door-to-door salespeople and scam artists.
Five Tips for Recognizing Financial Abuse
Despite your best efforts, it's possible someone may manage to take financial advantage of an elderly loved one. Be on the lookout for these five things:
- Banking irregularities. Check statements for low bank balances and large withdrawals. Review cancelled checks to see if any have been made out to cash or if signatures on checks look different. Be alert for new signatories added to your loved one's accounts, or new joint accounts in the name of your loved one and a party you don't recognize.
- Credit cards. Check statements for large or unusual credit card transactions.
- Disappearing valuables. Have heirlooms or other valuable objects like jewelry or rare coins disappeared from your loved one's home?
- Signs of isolation. If your elderly loved one suddenly seems to be occupied with a new friend, especially a much younger one, or begins to seem isolated from trusted friends and family, investigate further. A financial abuser may be trying to cut him off from people who would protect him from the abuse.
- Fear of caregivers. If an elderly loved one shows signs of being afraid to be left alone with caregivers, don't shrug this off--there could be a good reason, including financial or physical abuse.
Five Tips for Responding to Elder Financial Abuse
If you suspect an elderly loved one is being financially abused, there are a number of things you can do:
- File a police report. Provide as much documentation as you can.
- Call Adult Protective Services. They, and your state attorney general, are also interested in investigating financial abuse of elderly people.
- Hold fiduciaries to account. If you suspect your loved one is being taken advantage of by someone who is court-appointed to protect him or her, take action through the county Probate Court in which the guardian/conservator was appointed. If there is no conservator, consider petitioning to become one so you can protect your loved one.
- Become a conservator. If your elderly loved one has no one appointed to manage his or her finances, consider petitioning to become his or her conservator through the local Probate Court.
- Ally with advocates. Contact the National Center on Elder Abuse for the advice of people experienced in stopping elder abuse and getting restitution for victims of elder financial abuse.
If You Do Only One Thing
All of the above suggestions, taken together, may seem overwhelming. If you do only one thing to protect your elderly loved one (or yourself, if you fear financial abuse), contact an experienced elder law attorney. He or she will help you evaluate the situation, decide what actions must be taken first, and help you put in place any needed legal mechanisms, such as a trust, to protect your loved one.
If you'd like to learn more about preventing financial exploitation of elders, read further: