You may think that your aging loved ones are safe from being ripped off because they’ve been careful about their estate planning, particularly if they have a lot to steal. But there is more to keeping them safe financially than a will and trust. The elders tell you “we’ve taken care of all that. Don’t worry”. They are intelligent, good with managing money historically. But things can change with aging. Should you worry?
Maybe you should. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) conducts its research, does prosecutions and tries to alert the public of signs of elder financial abuse. If you have an aging parent, meaning anyone over 65, that person is considered an “elder” under the law is statistically more at risk for theft. Invisible scammers aren’t the only ones trying to get into your aging parents’ assets and steal. It can be anyone with access to their bank accounts, checkbook or financial information. And it can happen to anyone.
The DOJ posts 11 financial exploitation warning signs on its website. I’m highlighting the three most recurring red flags we see, consulting with families at AgingParents.com. I have a pet peeve about this! Adult kids with cognitively impaired or just gullible aging parents aren’t always paying attention and asking questions. Too many families do not watch for these red flags and don’t see them until it’s too late. Many of these crimes are preventable. If you don’t want the cost of caregiving for aging loved ones to fall on YOU, should your elders get seriously ripped off, consider checking for these things:
- Abrupt changes in a loved one’s will or other financial documents
- Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an older adult’s property or possessions
- The inclusion of additional names that were never there before on an older adult’s bank signature card
These signs are often tied together. Here’s a typical example:
Mom’s distant cousin, whom she hasn’t seen in years, just moved in with her. Cousin is deeply involved in Mom’s life and even provides physical care Mom needs. Family gives a shrug and doesn’t question cousin. Cousin is saving them the trouble of giving care themselves or paying for that. Cousin slowly persuades Mom that she’s just trying to protect her. Mom is a little forgetful and is vulnerable to this. She needs companionship. Cousin gives her lots of attention and keeps saying the other family is out to get her money.
Power of Attorney Can Be A License To Steal
She gets Mom to sign a Power of Attorney, giving cousin complete control over her money and property. You wouldn’t know this if you are too trusting and don’t keep close watch. The very move-in of the cousin is suspicious and should serve as a red flag for any other family Mom has. Maybe it’s fine or maybe cousin has ulterior motives and is an opportunist. If ignored, cousin can also have Mom sign new estate documents disinheriting everyone but herself. If this didn’t happen regularly, maybe I wouldn’t write about it. But it’s all too common that a manipulative schemer steals from every potential heir to the aging parent, and gets away with it.
The worst outcome in the cousin case example, above, is that cousin empties the bank and investment accounts, gets Mom to name her as the only beneficiary in the will or trust. Then she leaves, no notice, no discussion with anyone. The family is shocked and outraged to discover that Mom has no money and now she really does need a lot of expensive care. Cousin has nothing to say other than “it’s what she wanted”. And with what was basically illegal manipulation, she just might get away with it. Suing her for her wrongdoings is expensive. Who could afford it?
Here’s what families need to do. It may feel nosy and your aging parent may resist. But you need to stay on top of what’s happening with your elders and don’t blindly trust that they are always aware of everything.
Ask questions of your elders and question anyone you have even a slight suspicion about in your parents’ lives. Who has access to their financial information?
You need to verify what your elders tell you. Maybe they are forgetful or just don’t see what risk may be present. “Everything’s okay, don’t worry” is not a safe answer when you need to know more.
Get online access to at least view their accounts, even if they don’t do online banking. Watch the activity regularly. You will need permission to access the information.
There are a lot of greedy folks out there. It can be someone you know or a stranger, caregiver, so-called friend, or relative of your loved ones. If you are viewing your aging parents’ financial transactions, you will see any unusual activity, like wire transfers to unknown persons. It only takes a few minutes a week to check the online bank balance or other institutional records. If you, yourself are uncomfortable with online banking and getting access to an elder’s account, don’t let that stop you. You can ask a younger or more tech savvy person to help you get set up. You can learn how to check the information. Unusual withdrawals are a good first clue that something alarming could be happening. You can stop thefts when you see them. In most cases, banks will cooperate when you show evidence of abuse on their elder customer. They can block the accounts, change access and report to authorities.
Every family with an aging parent or other loved one can do a lot to heed warnings and protect our elders from manipulation and abuse.