Senior adult abuse prevention 101

This article is written with senior adults, their family members, and their loved ones in mind because the signs of elder abuse are difficult to detect by the senior adult and even more difficult to detect by their loved ones and family members who have limited access or infrequent contact with the senior adult.  A vulnerable senior may be suffering from obvious forms of abuse such as physical neglect or mistreatment or they may be the victim of misleading parties who prey on their financial vulnerabilities through a Power of Attorney, joint bank account, or another scheme.  Either way, it is an ugly problem that deserves your full attention.  Nobody deserves to be mistreated and abused…particularly those who are most vulnerable.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) defines elder abuse as “An intentional act or failure to act by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.”  DOJ Elder Abuse Statistics indicate that at least 10% of adults aged 65 and older will experience some form of elder abuse in a given year, with some older adults experiencing more than one type of abuse.  Elder abuse occurs in five common types:  Caregiver Neglect occurring 5.1% of the time; Financial Fraud & Exploitation occurring 5.2% of the time; Psychological Abuse occurring 4.6% of the time; Sexual Abuse occurring 0.6% of the time; and Physical Abuse occurring 1.6% of the time.  As you can tell from these statistics, while sexual abuse and physical abuse grab headlines and often provide the easiest outward evidence of abuse, they are the least occurring elder abuse categories.

A new study published by Coparitech, a pro-consumer website providing information, tools, reviews and comparisons founded in 2015, reports that elder financial abuse in the US has grown to approximately 8.68 million cases per year causing losses from the exploits exceeding $113.7 billion annually.  They report that more than 369,000 scams and financial cases targeting the senior adults are reported to authorities annually, and most experts agree many others go unreported.  Their research indicates that $4.84 billion in damages are reported to authorities; therefore, the actual cost to our senior adults in likely much larger.

Financial fraud and exploitation, also known as financial abuse, is the mistreatment of senior adults through scams, fraud, coercion, theft, or improper use of their money, property, or other valuable resources.  It is the adult abuse most often reported to my law firm.  GreatSeniorLiving.com, a website devoted to senior topics, reports that financial fraud and exploitation affects about 1 in 18 cognitively healthy, non-institutionalized seniors annually.  When clients approach our law firm for help, they most often report that the senior adult has been the victim of an intentional act in which a perpetrator improperly reaps financial benefits through the use of persuasion, a Power of Attorney, a purchase or sale of assets, or by convincing a senior to include the other party as a co-owner of property or accounts.

We find that perpetrators often get their victims to trust them by using deception or providing offers of help that are based on false pretenses. They also use scare tactics or make claims in order to push seniors to give them money or hand over control of their assets. While many scams involve telemarketing or direct mail, most financial abuse is conducted by people that seniors already know and trust, such as spouses or romantic partners, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, nieces, nephews, or other blood relatives, in-laws, paid or volunteer caregivers, friends, legal guardians, neighbors or other acquaintances, financial advisors, salespeople, healthcare practitioners, religious leaders and church members.  According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, family members account for close to 60 percent of those who financially exploit seniors.  Friends, neighbors, and home care aides collectively account for nearly 32 percent of financial abusers who target the elderly.

When it comes to financial exploitation of a senior adult, you may observe signs such as:

  • Insufficient funds checks
  • High credit card bills
  • Unexplained bank account transactions
  • Unpaid bills
  • Letters of demand from creditors
  • New friends or associates who spend an unusually large amount of time with the senior
  • New roommates
  • Forged signatures
  • New assets
  • Missing assets and personal possessions
  • The senior moves in with a new friend or associate
  • An increase in mail or packages
  • Suspicious legal documents such as a Power of Attorney listing new friends or associates as agents
  • Do-it-yourself legal documents
  • Documents purporting to assign someone other than family members as agent or attorney-in-fact
  • New estate planning documents excluding loved ones

If you suspect adult abuse in the form of financial fraud and exploitation, first look for potential adult abusers in the form of those who are motivated by a sense of entitlement.  Thereafter, look for others who seek the opportunity to seize a larger inheritance, or those who are digging themselves out of financial distress caused by a lack of money or unemployment, or those who must pay off debts or fuel an addiction to drugs, alcohol, shopping, or gambling.

In summary, elder abuse in the form of financial fraud and exploitation does not always come in the form of a scammer on the telephone, an unsolicited email, or a knock at the door.  Instead, it often comes in the form of a family member or friend.  Take care to look for the signs of elder abuse and report all instances to local law enforcement or an attorney of your choice.

Todd Miller is a monthly contributor and regularly writes and speaks on various legal topics including bankruptcy, estate planning, probate, and elder law.  He formed the Law Office of Todd Miller, LLC, 1305 Southwest Blvd., Ste. A, Jefferson City, Missouri in 2006.  He has been awarded the Substantial Contributor Attorney Award by the Missouri Bar and ranked as one of the “Top Attorneys in Missouri” by The Legal Network.  Mr. Miller earned his juris doctorate degree from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1999 and graduated with honors from Lincoln University in 1991.  You may find him at www.toddmillerlaw.com (573) 634-2838 or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.