The battle against elder financial abuse in America starts with our own families, but it requires a much broader base. The combined efforts of our communities, public and private institutions, and law enforcement all play an essential role in a fight that will only intensify in the coming decades.
There are now 50 million Americans over the age of 65. Ten thousand baby boomers reach 65 each day. This age group is also a target class for predators and swindlers whose actions are often covered in silence. A 2016 study from the AARP’s Public Policy Institute revealed that one in five older Americans are victims of financial exploitation each year.
Some elders are particularly vulnerable to financial pillage. An estimated 5.8 million Americans of all ages are living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2019. It’s estimated that 500,000 new cases of Alzheimer’s will be diagnosed each year in the United States. For those suffering the disease, cognitive decline, an offshoot of Alzheimer’s, affects all areas of life. Predators zero in on financial assets like bank and securities accounts, homes and credit cards. An elder’s legal documents like powers of attorney, deeds, trusts and wills can all be changed through undue influence or fraud.
So, how do we protect our loved ones from elder financial abuse? We start with a recognition of the common elements of vulnerability. Consider the following:
- Cognitive decline
- Language barriers
- Emotional distress
Wrongdoers exploit these factors, using excessive persuasion and overcoming the elder’s free will. They manipulate trust and affection for their own material gain. The wealth, power, education or seeming clarity of the elderly victim do not necessarily provide protection against bad actors. Family involvement with the elder is critical in spotting financial abuse.
Common markers of abuse include unpaid bills; utilities shut off; checks or documents with unfamiliar signatures; changed powers of attorney or estate plans; isolation; fear; baby monitors; monitoring of the elder’s phone calls; suspicious withdrawals; surrender of financial oversight; missing personal property; APS reports; and caregiver car or home purchases.
Elder financial abuse is growing more sophisticated. Tactics include:
- IRS impersonation scams
- Sweepstakes scams
- Grandparent scams
- Computer scams (like bogus tech support requiring passwords and financial information)
- Sweetheart scams
- Identity theft
Wrongdoers are often caregivers, paid or unpaid, as well as family or outsiders. Isolation of an Alzheimer’s patient by a caregiver is coupled with claims that family members have abandoned them and that they are in danger of losing everything. My experience also teaches that dependent adult children – usually unemployed and addicted – endanger a senior’s financial health. They’ll steer estate distributions in their favor and exclude all other family members.
So, some final tips:
- Stay in contact with your elderly loved one;
- Work for transparency in the elder’s financial affairs; and
- Stay up to date on the elder’s physical and mental health.
A truism ascribed to President Theodore Roosevelt holds that “people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Hackard Law’s practice in civilly prosecuting elder financial abuse cases bears this out.
Families want protection from elder financial exploitation – and in many ways, it’s not about the money. The integrity and dignity of an older person’s life are at stake. Wrongdoers hijacking the elder’s assets are also hijacking a lifetime of planning, commitment and love. America’s elders and their families deserve to be safeguarded. Raising awareness about their vulnerability is a major step in providing them the protection they need.
The knowledge I’m sharing isn’t theoretical – it derives from representing abused beneficiaries as a trust litigation attorney. I’ve written two books on elder financial exploitation: The Wolf at the Door: Undue Influence and Elder Financial Abuse and Alzheimer’s, Widowed Stepmothers & Estate Crimes. Hackard Law represents beneficiaries in elder financial abuse litigation across the state, including in Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and Sacramento. You can call us today at 916-313-3030.