As our family members age, they can become more dependent on their healthier spouses or grown children to care for them, keep them healthy, and continue to protect them as their health fails.
Sometimes, however, the tables are turned, and rather than protecting the oldest family member, opportunistic relatives end up taking advantage of him.
According to studies published by the National Center on Elder Abuse, two-thirds of all perpetrators are exactly those whom the aging victim might have trusted most. Spouses and adult children, who are financially dependent on the victim’s bank account, are the most likely to take advantage of the elder’s financial resources. Often, this is due to alcohol and drug abuse.
Dementia is a major risk factor in all kinds of elder abuse, including the subtle, hands-free abuse known as financial exploitation. Even senior citizens who begin to contract a milder form of cognitive impairment, which can still be in its early stages of advance, are vulnerable.
Elder law professionals can be knowledgeable and active advocates for senior citizens who need to protect their financial resources. Unfortunately, the secretive and unreported nature of the crimes makes supporting the rights of the victims, who may not realize they’ve been victimized, challenging.
Elder laws vary from state to state, but recently, many states have increased the penalties for victimization – financial or otherwise – of senior citizens. Twenty-four states have joined an elder exploitation prevention program, called the Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Prevention Program (EIFFE) which guards against fraud committed by family members. The program, begun two years ago, piloted the idea of involving the primary care physician in a type of watchdog role. The senior citizen’s physician, while not usually privy to the financial climate of the victim’s household, can now identify risk factors for having potentially sticky-fingered family members during routine visits. They refer patients for screening if they suspect an abusive situation, and report any mistreatment to Adult Protective Services.
According to a survey conducted by investigators of elder financial fraud, one in five senior citizens can be financially victimized. The EIFFE’s outreach to the physicians, including dentists, has already seen success in identifying patients who have been victimized but have not, or cannot, advocate for themselves. The patients may be driven to their doctors’ appointments by the very family members who are swindling them, and the EIFFE’s continuing education trains doctors how to handle situations that may arise even in the environment of the waiting room.
Last month, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that a 46-year-old Minnesota man was charged with swindling his 86-year-old mother out of $320,000.
His family is furious, now that his crime has come to light, and they calculated that the figure is closer to $770,000. The man had used the money to fund a phone sex and pornography habit, as well as limousine rides and trips to a resort. According to the article, the records show he had been funneling his mother’s savings into his own hands for eleven years. The son faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail and a $100,000 fine.
The same article lists a statistic that in the United States, senior citizens lost $2.9 billion in 2010 because of financially abusive family members.
Adam J. Roa is the managing attorney for The Law Offices of Adam J. Roa, P.C. Mr. Roa’s practice field is exclusively Maryland elder law, including litigation for probate, trusts, guardianship, Medicaid process, estate planning documents, and related issues. Mr. Roa has significant trial experience and often lectures on topics related to elder law.