Elder financial abuse is “the ultimate betrayal,” says Colleen Toy White, a Superior Court judge in Ventura County, Calif., who sees roughly 40 cases of such abuse each month. “It’s shocking to see how vulnerable the elder person is.”
Consumer Reports has written about scams by strangers, among them fraudulent sweepstakes phone calls and investments, and grandparent scams. Far more insidious are deceptions by neighbors, friends, employees and relatives – the very people entrusted to care for and protect seniors.
Preventing financial exploitation by the people you know might require taking legal precautions; at the very least you’ll need to have some uncomfortable conversations with friends and family.
• Hire the right professionals. Engage a CPA or certified financial planner to handle such concerns as how much money you can withdraw safely from retirement funds. Hire an estate planning attorney with elder law expertise to write your will and power-of-attorney documents; he or she can also craft trusts, which can limit relatives’ access to your money. A professional daily money manager can help you deal with bill paying, insurance claims, phone calls to financial institutions and troubleshooting.
• Set up your documents. Consider carefully to whom you give power of attorney. Though legally that person is your fiduciary – charged with acting in your best interest – in practice he or she could do anything with your money, even without your knowledge. Don’t assume the person closest to you will do the best job; you might be better off giving it to someone more detached and financially secure. Experts told Consumer Reports that for no extra cost, the power-of-attorney document can be drawn up with limits, such as assigning a relative or friend to monitor the person with power of attorney, mandating a periodic written report of financial transactions, or assigning joint powers of attorney, which requires two signatures on every check.
• Arrange your everyday accounts. Set up direct deposit of payments such as tax refunds, pension benefits and Social Security. As of March 1, 2013, all Social Security benefits must be paid electronically or on a debit card. (Go to ssa.gov/deposit for details.) Set up automated bill paying with your bank for your mortgage, utility bills and other regular expenses. Have financial institutions send statements and alerts to a trusted person who has no access to any of your accounts to check for fraud.
• Secure your home. Make sure any caregiver undergoes a background check. Don’t assume that a placement agency will do a thorough one. Insist on a national, rather than state, criminal check.
• Don’t leave mail in an unsecured mailbox. Shred documents with identifying information. List and photograph all jewelry and valuables so they can be traced to pawn shops if necessary.
The most important action you can take on an older relative’s behalf is to make sure he or she gets out and about. Elder abuse is correlated highly with social and physical isolation. In addition to making regular and unplanned visits yourself, arrange for outings and visits with friends, neighbors, clergy and volunteers.
• Lay down the ground rules. Hold a family meeting to discuss who will look after the older relative physically and financially. If one relative will handle the bulk of the care, have an attorney draft a “personal-care agreement” that outlines how much he or she should receive for services.
• Set up a limited account. If you’re concerned about your relative’s abilities to make financial decisions, set up a small account at a local bank for him or her. The account could, for instance, include a debit card and checks and have a spending limit of, say, $300. Arrange with the bank to investigate checks written for more.
• Be available. Accompany your relative to meetings with financial advisers and doctors; they can help you make plans for his or her protection.