Prevent financial elder abuse

What you can do about the all-too-common phenomenon of financial elder abuse.

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Each year one in 10 Americans over the age of 60 experiences some form of elder abuse, according to the American Bar Association. However, such abuse may occur much more frequently: Just one in 45 elder abuse cases is actually reported, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA).

Even so, many people believe that physical, emotional, or financial abuse would never occur in their family. “The reality is that elder abuse takes place in families from all walks of life,” says Suzanne Schmitt, vice president for family engagement at Fidelity Investments. “The best protection from abuse—whether you’re an elder or the adult child of one—is an open line of communication with your family, and a plan in place to minimize risk.”

Defining elder abuse

Warning signs of abuse may be physical—such as bruises, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, and disorientation or confusion—or financial—such as donations to suspect “charities,” unexplained checks to strangers or others, or signs of financial stress when there should be none. Elder abuse also can have emotional consequences, such as depression, irritability, withdrawal from normal activities, or strained relationships.

It may be easy to dismiss some of these signs because they can mimic the symptoms of health conditions or of the aging process. The situation also may be complicated by the fact that the vast majority of elder abuse—90%, according to the NCEA—is perpetrated by family members. Given that so much elder abuse is a family affair, it’s critical for family members and others to be on the lookout for indications that your loved one feels intimidated by or is overly deferential to a caregiver (whether a family member, a friend, or a professional).

Certain types of seniors, including women, isolated individuals, and people with a disability or cognitive impairment, are more likely than others to fall prey to elder abuse. “For example, older people are sometimes targeted not only because they have assets, but because they may be socially isolated,” says Kim Perry, vice president for risk management at Fidelity Investments.

“To help older individuals from being socially isolated, consider encouraging them to socialize and join groups,” advises Perry. “These types of activities can also help keep older family members mentally sharp, and reduce the likelihood that they’ll be taken advantage of simply because they’re lonely and enjoy talking to someone, whether that person is on the other end of the phone or knocking on their door.”

The best prevention: a family conversation

While it’s important to understand the signs of elder abuse, it may be more productive to take steps to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. A family conversation—or, more likely, a series of conversations over time—can help you gain insight into your loved one’s affairs and mental state.

You can begin by discussing your loved one’s overall financial plan, including his or her plans for retirement income and transferring assets. You may also want to discuss estate planning documents such as an advanced health care directive and/or a durable power of attorney for financial affairs. From there, you can transition into a conversation about the potential for fraud or abuse.

This subject may be daunting to discuss with an aging parent, but you can use a variety of strategies to start the conversation gently. “You might say, ‘Hey, Dad, has anyone unexpected ever called or emailed you and asked for money? Are you getting an unusual number of charitable requests?’” suggests Perry. “However, don’t start by assuming they’re being targeted, as this type of assumption may put your family member on the defensive.”

If you’re concerned about a loved one, determine whether you can answer the following questions. If you can’t, target those areas for further discussion with your loved one and other family members who may have the information you seek.

  • Who manages your loved one’s money on a day-to-day basis?
  • How are these relationships going?
  • How are your loved one’s bills paid?
  • Is someone else named as an authorized person on their bank or investment accounts?
  • Has your loved one recently run out of money at the end of the month?
  • Has he or she mentioned regretting or worrying about any financial decisions made recently?
  • Does anyone else have access to their accounts or assets, or to his or her home (where sensitive documents and passwords may be)?
  • Has anyone recently asked your loved one for access to his or her accounts or assets?
  • Has anyone recently asked him or her for a loan?
  • Has anyone recently asked them to change their will in their favor?
  • Has your loved one given anyone power of attorney for his or her financial affairs or health care decisions?

Setting checks and balances

As you care for a loved one, consider establishing a set of checks and balances to minimize the potential for financial fraud. “A single point of oversight creates the potential for a single point of failure,” cautions Schmitt. “It would be highly advisable for parents with multiple children to make sure they don’t put all the caregiving or financial responsibilities on a single person.”

For instance, if one sibling is helping manage your parents’ day-to-day finances, consider having another sibling receive account statements in order to monitor cash flow and keep an eye out for potential abuse.

Your loved one and your family may decide that it’s perfectly appropriate for a caregiver to receive some payment for services rendered in exchange for their work—or your loved one may determine that payment for services rendered will be distributed only as part of his or her estate settlement. In either case, the key is to establish expectations, ground rules, and appropriate checks and balances to ensure that everyone follows the plan—and to have your loved one update his or her estate plan, if need be, to document these wishes and avoid potential misunderstandings between family members.

When it comes to preventing elder abuse, a commitment to ongoing family conversations about your loved one’s overall and financial well-being is immeasurably valuable. You need to stay engaged and alert and be willing to express your concerns. Sound checks and balances around financial responsibilities can be the best tools for preventing or spotting elder abuse.

Additional steps for preventing financial elder abuse

Become familiar with your loved one’s financial information and current estate plan documents. Ensure that your family member has completed the full suite of planning documents—including a will, a trust if needed, an advance health care directive, and a financial power of attorney—and that you know where these documents are kept.

Review the financial information and estate planning documents regularly. At least annually, discuss your loved one’s wishes and ensure that the documents continue to reflect them accurately. Also discuss whether anyone has asked your family member to change his or her plans. Consider suggesting that your loved one consult a trusted friend or family member before making any changes official.

Get to know your family member’s team. It may be appropriate for your loved one to introduce trusted family members to his or her attorney, tax adviser, financial adviser, and/or medical staff. Establishing these relationships before they are needed can make the process smoother when they do become necessary.

Take care of caregivers. Don’t let yourself (or a loved one’s primary caregiver) become overwhelmed. Line up respite care to give the primary caregiver a break from his or her responsibilities. Read Viewpoints: Caring for aging parents.

Make unannounced visits. If your loved one is frequently alone with a caregiver, drop by unexpectedly. Assess the living space: Is it clean, orderly, and well stocked? Look for signs that your loved one is nervous or uncomfortable to speak with you. See if he or she whispers, to avoid being overheard by his or her caregiver. Ask about what he or she is eating, and check to see that valuables are still there.

Educate your loved one about current solicitations and scams. Encourage your loved one to refuse to respond to any request for personal information (e.g., Social Security number, credit card numbers) or offers to buy a product or investment that he or she didn’t solicit. “People in their late 70s and older often have a really hard time hanging up on a scammer or closing the door on someone coming to their home who was not expected but who appears friendly,” explains Schmitt.

Establish open lines of communication. Like all of us, your loved one may make financial or other mistakes, perhaps due to misplaced trust. Let your family member know that it’s OK and even wise to talk openly about what happened. Silence and secrecy are likely to make matters worse, while openness and honesty can foster solutions and prevent future mistakes.

What to do if you suspect abuse has occurred

If you are concerned that your loved one may have been the victim of fraud or other abuse, ask him or her directly. One of the reasons elder abuse is underreported is that well-meaning onlookers are afraid to act unless they’re absolutely certain that abuse is occurring. If your loved one is in immediate danger, call the police or 911 immediately.

If you think your family member has been subject to abuse that is not life threatening, contact the Adult Protective Services program in your area. Remember that you do not have to prove that abuse is occurring; the professionals you contact are responsible for investigating your concerns.

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The tax information and estate planning information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a particular state or laws that may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pre- and/or after-tax investment results. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.
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