As a financial advisor with elderly clients, you have certain situations you probably deal with frequently. Planning for retirement. Determining how best to pay for long-term care. Advising family members on choosing a power of attorney.
Unfortunately, another situation that may come up with your older clients is elder financial abuse. Perpetrated through coercion, deception, or by simply taking advantage of a person’s diminished physical or mental capacity, elder financial abuse can encompass a multitude of behaviors: theft of valuable items, forged signatures on legal documents, or forced access to bank accounts, among other things.
Sadly, if your client is being financially abused, chances are it’s by someone your client knows well. Usually these acts are done by a family member or caregiver - someone who is both trusted and has access to the older person.
As an advisor, you’re uniquely positioned to spot this cruel behavior early on and help to stop it. Keep an eye out for these subtle signs of elder financial abuse.
Sudden changes to accounts
If your client hasn’t touched an account in years and suddenly wants to make a big withdrawal, you may want to probe more closely.
It could be that the client has thought the decision through and has a good reason for the change. However, it could also be a sign that someone else is trying to get your client’s money. If you see a change like this occur, it’s best to start gently asking questions about why the change was made. It could be that your client isn’t even aware of it - which, of course, is a major red flag.
No memory of financial-related matters
Most of us forget small things now and then, but if your client doesn’t remember something like signing a check or authorizing a withdrawal, it’s time to look more closely.
This could certainly be a sign that abuse or fraud is being perpetrated, but it could also signal a worrisome decline in your client’s mental faculties. Either way, the client’s finances are likely at risk.
The appearance of a new “best friend” or formerly estranged family member
Older people who live alone and have few close friends or family members nearby are at a greater risk for financial abuse. Unscrupulous people who prey on the elderly can single these people out and “befriend” them in attempts to get at their assets.
For example, your client could suddenly want to make a large cash gift to a person you’ve never heard of before - a long-lost niece, or a neighbor who’s become a close friend in a very short time.
This can put you, as an advisor, in a difficult position. You don’t want to sit back and watch your client drain his account, but you can’t tell your client outright that you think this new person just wants his money.
While client confidentiality laws can make it difficult to take action, financial advisors are legally allowed to report situations of suspected abuse if doing so will prevent actual or potential fraud. Depending on your state’s laws, you could be able to bring in a third party, like a client’s family member or at least the state’s adult protective services division.
Each state’s laws are different, so make sure you know your own state’s laws regarding privacy and elder financial abuse.
Sudden decision to grant someone power of attorney
A serious sign of financial elder abuse is a client’s sudden decision to grant power of attorney to someone.
If your client isn’t seriously ill, hasn’t discussed this option with you at length, or wants to grant power of attorney to someone you’ve never heard him or her mention, it may be time to ask them why they feel the need to do this.
There’s a chance that they don’t understand just how much control that gives the person who has power of attorney. Or perhaps they’ve been convinced that they don’t have the decision-making ability to manage their own finances any longer.
Elder financial abuse can be a tricky situation to navigate, but financial advisors owe it to their clients to be on the lookout. When spotted early, the damages from this kind of exploitation can be minimized.