By Randy R. Werner, CPA, JD
The population of those 65 and older in the United States is projected to grow to 80 million by the year 2050, and the incidences of elder abuse – including hard-to-detect financial and material exploitation – are also expected to grow. Financial neglect, financial exploitation, and health care fraud are among the more egregious examples in this category of elder abuse.
As trusted financial advisers, CPAs have an intimate knowledge of their clients’ finances, business matters, and family dynamics. While it may not be in the job description, CPAs can often detect problems and render preventive assistance before such concerns materialize into full-blown crises. Therefore, it is important to know the warning signs of elder financial abuse and what you can do to prevent it or act on behalf of your clients when necessary.
Signs of Exploitation
Most elder abuse victims are female (though it is common among both sexes) and most perpetrators are male (often an adult child). Spouses and other family members may also be abusive.
One of the more common and prominent warning signs is isolation. A common scenario is one where the abuser controls the elder’s social life, telling callers or visitors that the elder does not want to talk with them or provides an excuse that prevents the elder from speaking with callers or visitors. Later, the abuser feigns disappointment and empathy when telling the elder that no one has called or visited and claims the abuser is the only one who cares about the elder.
Another tactic abusers use is to tell the elder that when others ask questions their intent is to find grounds for placing the elder in a nursing facility. This intimidates the elder into avoiding contact with others, including those trying to help. Signs of intimidation or threats include unusually submissive behavior, fear of the caregiver, withdrawn behavior, or anxiety about personal finances and other issues.
While less common, some abuse schemes are perpetrated by strangers who insinuate themselves into the senior’s life as a new caregiver, a friend, a romantic interest, or even as a “financial adviser.” Seniors who feel isolated in retirement can be vulnerable to this approach.
Elders who have few contacts with the outside world may also be vulnerable to telemarketers and devious salespeople. These “professionals” frequently persuade elders to purchase inappropriate products and risky investments that promise unrealistic returns. Another common scheme is to convince seniors to purchase variable annuities with high commissions to the seller and high surrender charges, causing the elder’s funds to be illiquid and unavailable.
Other signs and symptoms of exploitation include, but are not limited to the following:
- The sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder’s affairs and possessions
- Unpaid bills, missed appointments, or substandard care being provided despite the availability of adequate financial resources
- Unnecessary services or goods (large appliances, expensive jewelry, etc.)
- Not provided with needed medical aids such as glasses, walkers, dentures, hearing aids, or medications
- Pharmacy or grocery receipts for purchases inconsistent with the client’s prescriptions or lifestyle (e.g., alcohol for a nondrinker)
- Significant changes in spending patterns
- Dramatic changes in attitude, such as agitation, violence, or rocking back and forth
- Unexplained disappearance of funds or valuable possessions
- Sudden changes in a bank account or banking practices, including unexplained withdrawals of large sums of money by someone accompanying the elder
- Adding authorized signers on bank and other financial accounts
- Use of the senior’s ATM card by someone else, especially when the senior is unable to leave home
- Credit card statements reflecting increased or unusual activity
- Increase in the number and amount of credit card accounts
- Checks used out of numerical sequence
- Addresses for bank or credit card statements changed to an address other than the elder’s
- Changes to a power of attorney from a long-time friend or family member to a someone else
- Abrupt and/or unexpected changes in beneficiaries or provisions in a will, trust, or other legal or financial documents
- Unexplained sudden transfer of assets
- Changes in title to property
- Mortgage refinanced, accompanied by an unexpected cash-out
- Discovery of an elder’s signature being forged for financial transactions or for title to possessions
CPAs Can Help
Elder abuse will continue unless someone takes action to help. CPAs should encourage their clients to explain their estate desires to all family members, particularly when there has been a second marriage. Emphasize that planning now will help avoid ambiguity about their future desires. Encourage clients to consider arranging a living will or other type of medical directive, such as an advance health care directive, to make their health care desires known in the event someone must intercede on their behalf.
CPAs should encourage their older clients to consider consulting with family members and legal counsel regarding the options for assigning financial guardians or power of attorney and the timing of doing so. If the client has assigned power of attorney to someone, ask the client for the person’s name and contact information in the event illness or disability necessitates contacting that person. CPAs should consider suggesting that their more senior clients provide them with contact information and written consent to contact a predesignated responsible adult or family member in the event the CPA suspects elder abuse. Revisit this consent regularly before elder abuse is suspected.
There are many resources available for reporting and dealing with elder abuse. One resource is the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) program of the U.S. Administration on Aging. The NCEA has a page dedicated to finding state-specific resources concerning elder abuse.
Financial exploitation is a crime, and the laws on reporting suspected elder abuse vary by state. CPAs concerned that their senior clients are being abused should contact the firm’s lawyer or their professional liability provider for guidance on how to proceed.
Randy Werner is a loss prevention executive with CAMICO. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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