Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Pattern of Financial Abuse Of Elders Explained

January 21, 2008

Financial exploitation is the "act or process of taking unfair advantage of a dependent adult or a dependent adult’s physical or financial resources for one’s own pecuniary profit, without the informed consent of the dependent adult, including theft, by the use of undue influence, harassment, duress, deception, false representation or false pretenses." Code of Iowa 235B.2

The lack of clarity regarding "exploitation" comes in when the elders’ health/physical impairments which affects their cognitive ability to make decisions or give consent is not considered. Social services, law enforcement and the legal system have to interpret if the elderly person has the ability to give consent to his or her actions. The pattern of abuse starts in this fuzzy area long before impairments become obvious to family members and outside authorities.

Perpetrators are usually family members or caregivers who are in a position of trust and power upon whom the elderly person is dependent.

Some of the signs or symptoms of financial abuse include the following:

- Abrupt changes in wills, trusts, contracts, the power of attorney, the durable power of attorney, property titles, deeds or mortgages.

- Withdrawal of investments in spite of penalties for early withdrawal.

- Withdrawals from the elder’s bank account, particularly in round amounts such as $100 or $500.

- Changes in beneficiaries on insurance policies or IRAs.

- Forged signatures. Large checks being written to unusual recipients.

- Increased lack of contact with and interest in outside world, reluctance to accept visits or phone calls.

- Caregiver restricts the elder’s contact with the outside world, speaking for the elder, refusing phone calls, preventing visits, reading mail for the elder, handling all expenditures.

- Contacts with the elderly are screened, monitored and supervised.

- A sudden close relationship with a much younger, more able person (including a marriage or domestic partnership).

- Valued possessions or money missing from the seniors household.

- Sudden interest by relatives historically not close to the senior showing ingratiating interest in caregiving and emotional support.

- Discharge of long standing professional advisors and replacement with individuals more aligned with the caregiver.

- Disparity between income/assets and lifestyle or living arrangements.

What can be done to prevent elderly abuse? Here are a few ideas on preventative steps that will address this problem.

- Have a respected family member in the loop to whom the caregiver confers prior to major expenditures of the senior’s assets.

- A routine independent financial audit to monitor accounts and spot unusual activity.

- Open estate planning in which the parents spell out their desires for the estate and all siblings have an opportunity to voice problems they see. If the estate plan is short-sighted, the parents can take corrective action including seeking outside opinions about the adequacy of the plan. The openness of the plan should act as a deterrent against alterations or manipulations.

- Parents could project ahead to a point where they might be impaired and build in safeguards that their original wishes regarding their estate stay intact. They can anticipate the business help or guidance the surviving spouse might need it he or she becomes impaired.

- Disputes about financial improprieties or healthcare concerns should be handled through mediation or before an arbitration board before engaging attorneys and initiating litigation. Serious family disputes that end up in the courts are generally protracted and costly with charges and countercharges eroding family assets and goodwill.

- Suspected abuse should be reported and investigated by appropriate state agencies and law enforcement personnel. They need proper training and education to be effective in their work.

- Educate the general public on the prevalence of the problem and what to look for.

- Outside professionals can be alert for signs of depression, depression or excessive worry about finances. Guardedness about a dependent adult’s relationship with his or her caregiver may also be a sign of fear, duress, embarrassment or oppression.

- Power of attorney, durable power of attorney, guardianships and conservatorships should have judicial review if accusations are made that they are being used arbitrarily to shield abuse of any sort.

- I don’t know what to say about the adequacy of the legal profession or police to abuses and conflicts of interest in this area of family law. There seems to be a consistent theme of complaints about how responsive some members of the profession are to the problem.