As parents age and their physical and mental capacities diminish, it is natural for their adult children (recognizing the parents’ decreasing ability to care for themselves) to step in and help them. Often, a specific child will take over the bulk of the responsibilities, such as taking the parent to doctor’s appointments or the attorney’s office. As the parent begins to depend on the child more and more, it may make sense to appoint the child as a trusted decision maker and even to give them a larger inheritance to compensate them for their time. At the same time, other family members must take extreme care to ensure that their loved one isn’t subject to financial exploitation, and that their older parent is not being exploited by a manipulative caretaker.
Who Is Susceptible to Financial Exploitation?
With more people living into their eighties and nineties, elder abuse is a serious and increasingly common problem in our society. Elder abuse can take several forms, such as physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse or caretaker neglect or exploitation. Up to one-half of all elder abuse in the United States is financial exploitation, which is the aspect this article focuses on. Financial exploitation includes outright theft of money or property, illegal transfers of property, identity theft, and misusing a position of trust, such as through a power of attorney.
Research has shown that the following characteristics indicate that an older adult is more likely to be financially exploited through undue influence:
- Physical limitations that require them to depend on others to perform daily living activities such as home and yard maintenance, personal health and hygiene, preparing meals, paying bills, and transportation
- Mental limitations resulting from medication side effects, dementia, or injury
- Having recently experienced the death of a close loved one, such as a spouse or sibling
- Social isolation that results from few family or friends who visit or living alone with little or no access to community activities or healthcare services
- Experiencing anxiety or depression caused or worsened by loss or isolation
- Being generally naïve and extremely trusting
- Having little to no knowledge about their financial situation or little to no experience handling finances, for example, if their recently deceased spouse handled all the finances
Often, people who use undue influence to financially exploit an older adult do not begin helping them with the intent of using the older adult’s trust to manipulate or exploit them. Nevertheless, as time goes on, whether because of resentment or entitlement or another reason, the helper begins to feel justified in helping themselves to the older adult’s money and property.
Although it is most often a family member who financially exploits the older adult through undue influence, financial exploitation can also occur at the hands of any person whom the older adult trusts, such as a neighbor, a fellow member of a religious organization, a housekeeper, or a professional adviser.
Exploitation Warning Signs
Below are some warning signs that a dutiful caretaker has crossed the line into elder abuse:
- Disappearance of the older adult’s cash or valuable possessions
- Unusual charges on the older adult’s credit or debit cards or unusual withdrawals from their bank accounts
- Unexplained transfer of accounts to another institution or person
- Changes to legal documents, such as a power of attorney, will, or trust, by the older adult naming the caretaker to trusted positions or granting an inheritance or a larger inheritance, particularly when such a change goes against the older adult’s previously expressed wishes
- Placing the caretaker’s name on accounts as a joint owner or payable-on-death beneficiary
- Signatures other than the older adult’s signature, or forged signatures, appearing on checks or credit card or loan applications
- The caretaker socially isolating the older adult by limiting their access to communication (phone, mail, or email) or social visits or disallowing privacy on the phone or with visitors
- The older adult’s bills going unpaid or the older adult is expressing concern about not having enough money to pay bills when there is sufficient income or other financial resources available
- Unexplained changes in the older adult’s demeanor or interests
How to Prevent Financial Exploitation
Although the estimated annual cost of elder financial abuse is billions of dollars, it regularly goes unreported because the abuser is often a family member or trusted caregiver and the older adult is either unaware of the abuse or too embarrassed or afraid to report it. Yet by being aware of the warning signs and helping to create a community network around the older adult, as well as taking careful and appropriate steps to plan for their decreasing ability to manage their own finances, such as setting up automatic bill pay or creating a power of attorney or trust, you can greatly reduce the risks. We can help you take the steps necessary to protect yourself as you age or to protect your vulnerable loved ones. Call us so we can discuss the appropriate steps to take.
We Are Here to Help
Completing your estate plan allows you to take control by providing instructions about what is to happen during your life and at your death. We can provide you with guidance and information about the options available to you. Estate plans can be drafted in a number of different ways to prevent unnecessary stress, legal expenses, and taxes. Additionally, we can work with you to help give you and your loved ones the peace of mind that comes with knowing that plans are in place for your care if any of you become ill and that your wishes will be honored when you pass away. Nielsen Law PLLC provides family focused estate planning to individuals and families in Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area. For more information and to learn about our firm, please contact us.
 Michael J. Tueth, M.D., Exposing Financial Exploitation of Impaired Elderly Persons, 8 Am. J. Geriatric Psychiatry 104 (2000)
 Martin Hagan, Financial Exploitation of the Elderly through Undue Influence: How to Spot It and What to Do about It, Martin Hagan’s Estate Planning Resource Center
 Marguerita Cheng, Elder Financial Exploitation: Warning Signs, Prevention and Reporting, U.S. News and World Report