Accountants and financial advisers can often become aware of the financial abuse of older people. Family members and others may be siphoning off money from bank accounts, selling assets or pressuring older people into personal loan agreements.
Elder abuse is widespread across Australia, says Rebecca O’Toole, practice leader for the estate litigation team at Shine Lawyers.
“A common scenario is when someone doesn’t want to be put into a nursing home,” she says.
“A family member offers to care for them in the elderly person’s home, provided ownership is transferred to them. Once they get the house, they renege and put them in a nursing home. That’s when they come to us. It's terrible.”
The perpetrator is often a child, grandchild or in the absence of those, a neighbour.
Here are some of the signs of financial elder abuse, and what you should do if you know or suspect someone is being victimised.
A change in banking habits
If you have a client that has always done their banking in person but has switched to online banking and has someone else doing it for them, this could be a red flag.
A change in power of attorney
The perpetrator may obtain power of attorney to facilitate the abuse. If you meet the power of attorney, keep an eye out for comments that concern you.
Large gifts of cash or a transfer of property
“The main reason why people come to us for help is after a transfer of property or a substantial amount of cash has been given,” says O’Toole. Sometimes multiple gifts are given to different people. When it’s out of character, it should raise alarm bells.
A client no longer has enough money to afford basic living expenses
There might be subtle signs, such as a throwaway comment about not using the heating or cooling in their house anymore as a way to save money. There could also be signs of malnourishment due to not having enough food in the cupboards.
What to do if you suspect elder abuse
“You need to be cautious in making any accusations, so get as much information as you can to substantiate what you think might be happening,” says O’Toole.
Support your client
“It will depend on the nature of your relationship with them, but having a conversation in private about your concerns will help you to be fully informed before trying to intervene,” she says.
It is a difficult and sensitive topic to broach. Start from a point of concern by mentioning the changes you have noticed. Tell your client that they can discuss any worries they may have with you.
“Many elderly people want to maintain their independence and it is difficult for them to show their vulnerability or to admit that someone is taking advantage of them,” says O’Toole. “Try not to be not confrontational and just offer your support. You don't want to add to the pressure they're probably already under.”
Suggest a helpline
Each state has a helpline to provide free advice. In Victoria, for example, the Seniors’ Rights Helpline is 1300 368 821 or this website.
Recommend legal advice
If your client tells you that they are being victimized, advise them to see a lawyer. Encourage them not to delay doing so.
“When someone's taking advantage of an elderly person financially, they usually start small to see what they can get away with. It will always usually escalate unless someone intervenes. If you notice something, try your best to help them to prevent it getting worse.”
“Once a property is sold or transferred to a third party, it is much harder to get the property back or some compensation. You need to act quickly.”
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