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Elder Abuse (Winter2014) << Back
by Larry Nakahara
There have been many changes in the field of estate planning in recent years. The estate tax exemption is now $5,150,000 per person ($10,300,00 for a married couple), which eliminates most middle class taxpayers from having to worry about the estate tax, and the revocable living trust has become the estate planning tool of choice to avoid the costs and delays of a court supervised probate. However, there is one area of concern that seems to be on the rise, and that is the increasing number of cases of financial elder abuse.
Financial elder abuse can take may forms, and is not limited to cases where paid a care givers embezzles money and/or property from the elderly person they are taking care of. It can happen when a child or other close relative finds himself or herself in dire financial straights, and convinces an aging parent to make loans or gifts of money, which continue over time, or a family member convinces an aging parent to give up title to the family residence to avoid the “government” from taking the residence to cover the expense of long term care, if the parent requires such care at a future time, or a family member convinces a parent to sign a power of attorney that includes broad sweeping powers “just in case” something unexpected happens. Taking advantage of the elderly has become so prevalent in our culture that each county has a special department called The Department of Adult Protective Services that is charged with the investigation of cases involving elder abuse, and has enacted laws in the Welfare and Institutions Code to protect the elderly and provide remedies for the victims of elder abuse.
Despite all of these government measures designed to protect the elderly, the problem continues. However, many of these cases can be avoided by simply recognizing the problem and taking a few precautionary measures. First, elder abuse can only take place when family and friends are not vigilant. The old saying “It can’t happen in my family” is as out of date as the dial telephones of the 50's. Second, financial elder abuse generally occurs over an extended period of time in which a person (financial predator) builds up trust, and uses that trust to convince the elderly person to act in accordance with the financial predator’s wishes. Third, the financial predator will isolate the elderly person from past family members and friends in order to hide what is going on. When family members visit the elderly person, the financial predator will hover over the elderly person, and in some cases even speaks for the elderly person.
What can be done to avoid elder abuse? Take the time to visit the elderly parent or relative, and during these visits observe the elderly person’s environment. Is the elderly person’s memory impaired? Are financial documents (bank statements, bills, checks, etc.) strewn on the desks or dining room table? Are bills going unpaid? Is the check register not reflecting all of the checks being written on the account? Are there changes in spending habits such as increased ATM withdrawals, electronic transfers, or checks written to “cash”? Does the person providing care for the elderly person always say the elderly person is sleeping when family and friends come to visit or call on the telephone? Does the “new friend” insist on accompanying family members when they take the elderly person out for social outings? Does someone speak for the elderly person to make his or her wishes known while the elderly person sits and nods approvingly? These are all possible symptoms of financial elder abuse, and family members must recognize these events as possible signs of financial elder abuse.
If a family member suspects possible elder abuse, that person must be pro active. Financial predators count on friends and family members feeling uneasy about asking questions about financial matters that seem like an invasion of the elderly person’s privacy, or they try to make the family members who ask such questions appear to be greedy heirs who are just trying to protect their future inheritance. This feeling of guilt makes the family members withdraw, and allows the financial predator to continue to take advantage of the situation. A periodic review of the financial records (bank statements or securities statements) for the past several months is often helpful. If nothing else, it sends a message to a possible financial predator that someone is watching out for the elderly person and the risk of getting caught is greater, and may cause him or her to move on to other more productive hunting grounds.
We must care enough for our elderly family members to take the time to be vigilant. The elderly are not just worthy of our respect, they are also worthy of our time.
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