Updated: Jul 12, 2022
Financial abuse of the elderly can be perpetrated by people they know, or people they don’t know, and it can happen in many different ways. We talk to so many people who tell us that this is happening in their families. Often it's a sibling who has cut off a parent from members of the family. It’s a rapidly growing problem, accounting for over half of all reports of elder abuse in some states. There are things you can look for if you suspect that financial abuse of an elderly loved one has occurred, and various steps you can take to assure that their finances are recovered and properly managed in the future.
Examples of Elder Financial Abuse
Those who perpetrate financial abuse against an elderly person often engage in the following behaviors:
Forging or obtaining the elderly person’s signature by inappropriate means on checks or other documents
Getting the elderly person to sign a will, deed, or power of attorney listing the perpetrator as the one who is responsible for the elderly person or who will receive the person’s assets when the individual dies
Getting or persuading the elder person to sign financial documents, such as beneficiary forms, through deception, coercion, or undue influence
Taking, misusing, or using without knowledge or permission money or property
Cashing an elder person’s checks without permission
Promising to give the elderly person lifelong care only if they give them money or their property and not following through on the promise
Perpetrating fraud, which is the use of trickery, false pretenses, deception, or other dishonest acts in order to gain the person’s finances
Providing true but misleading information that influences the elder person’s use or assignment of assets
Using a power of attorney for purposes beyond those for which it was originally executed
Charging things against the elderly person’s credit cards without the authorization of the cardholder
Denying an elder person access to their money or preventing them from controlling their assets
Abusing joint signature authority on a bank account
Frequency of Financial Abuse
Financial exploitation of the elder appears in about one-third of all substantiated reports of all forms of elder abuse. This represents the third-largest category of reports, less than neglect (48.7 percent) and emotional or psychological abuse (35.41 percent), but more than physical abuse (25.6 percent). In some regions of the country, it accounts for nearly half of all substantiated cases of elder abuse. It is reported as one of the fastest-growing forms of abuse.
The Perpetrators of the Financial Abuse
The most common perpetrators of financial abuse against the elderly are relatives of the elderly person, their spouse, or someone else they hold in their confidence. Domestic settings are not only a frequent setting for this abuse, but they also tend to involve complex family dynamics and deep-seated conflicts, making them particularly difficult to identify and stop. Perpetrators often have the following characteristics:
They feel like the elderly person’s belongings are rightfully theirs, and they stand to inherit money or possessions when the elderly person dies.
They have financial difficulties, a tendency to gamble, or have problems with illicit drugs or alcohol.
They may express fears that the elderly person will use up all of their savings money to care for illnesses, depriving the perpetrator of their inheritance.
They may feel negatively toward siblings or other family members and want to keep them from inheriting the possessions of the elderly person.
Further complicating efforts to establish the parameters of financial abuse of the elderly are that both the elder person and the perpetrator may feel that the perpetrator has some entitlement to the elder person’s assets. Elder persons may feel a desire to benefit their heirs or to compensate those who provide them with care, affection, or attention. It can be difficult to discern a transfer of assets made with consent from an abusive transfer.
Sometimes, conduct that began in the elder person’s best interests may become abusive over time, as when perpetrators initially provide helpful advice regarding financial investments but take on greater control and ultimately misappropriate funds for themselves as the elder person’s cognitive abilities decline. Typically, financial abuse in a domestic setting reflects a pattern of behavior rather than a single event and occurs over a lengthy period of time.
Indicators of Financial Abuse Against the Elderly
It’s important to know the signs and behaviors that may be exhibited when elderly financial abuse is occurring. The presence of just one indicator may not be suggestive of a full-blown abuse, but if you see several, it may mean your loved one is being financially exploited.
Signs of financial abuse against the elderly include the following:
The perpetrator limits access to and contact with the elderly person by the person’s friends and family members. This often is done by screening phone calls, limiting times during which the perpetrator will allow visits with the elderly person, and changing the locks on the elderly person’s home.
The perpetrator suddenly or frequently changes or discontinues the elderly person’s existing care and support arrangements. Examples include terminating home care arrangements, moving the elderly person from an assisted living facility to the perpetrator’s residence.
The perpetrator begins residing with the elderly person or moves the elderly person into their home
The perpetrator is unwilling to share information about the elderly person’s care and status or gives only vague answers.
Canceled checks or bank statements that go to the perpetrator’s home.
Large bank withdrawals or transfers between different accounts that can’t be explained.
Eviction notices, evidence of unpaid bills or utilities being discontinued due to nonpayment.
The perpetrator refers to the elder as their new “best friend.”
The elder person’s care is substandard even when they can pay for it.
There are ATM withdrawals the elderly person could not have made or other unexplained withdrawals.
The elderly person is coerced to sign powers of attorney or other legal documents.
The perpetrator shows an inordinate interest in how much money the victim is spending.
There are missing belongings or property that is missing.
There are forgeries on legal documents or on checks.
Financial arrangements are sketchy and lack documentation.
The explanations about the elder’s finances as explained by the perpetrator are vague or implausible.
The elderly person does not know or understand their own financial situation.
If You Suspect Elder Abuse Here’s What You Can Do
If you suspect abuse of an elderly person has occurred or is occurring, please tell someone. Document your observations and conversations with the elderly person and perpetrator. Be prepared to share as many specifics as possible. You can report abuse to your state’s elder abuse hotline. In many instances, elder financial abuse and exploitation can be a crime. Financial exploitation can be reduced or stopped by having one of Fiffik Law Group’s experienced elder law attorneys get involved in the situation. We can assess the situation and give you options, including a court proceeding, to stop the abuse and hold the perpetrator accountable.
Further Reading: Pennsylvania Resources for Elder Abuse
Find our Elder Law page here.