How to avoid the growing trend of financial elder abuse

March 8, 2018

As my mother has aged and her dementia has progressed my sister and I have had to take over more and more of her financial affairs. To simplify matters, while she was still cognizant enough to do so, she added us as joint owners of her chequing account. When she last revised her will years ago, she also signed powers of attorney for property and health naming us to act on her behalf.

Her foresight has allowed us to sell her condo when she moved to a nursing home and invest the proceeds of sale to support her. But the unfortunate reality is that at this stage my mother or any other person in a similar situation would sign almost any document a trusted friend, relative or caregiver put in front of her. And if one of these individuals is unscrupulous, the results could be a disaster.

In June last year, Global News reported on the case of a Saskatchewan woman who was convinced by her daughter to sign over everything before she underwent hip replacement surgery. When her mother came out of the hospital she had nothing left but a small pension. In another case, the police laid criminal charges against a 49-year old caregiver after she allegedly stole close to $270,000 from an elderly Coquitlam couple under her care.

Leanne Kaufman, Toronto-based head of RBC Estate & Trust Services has seen her fair share of financial elder abuse. “It’s not always easy to see financial abuse of an elder as it’s happening. More often, cases are discovered after large portions of one’s savings have gone missing,” Kaufman says. “But there are warning signs that loved ones should watch for. One big red flag is if a new friend, companion or romantic interest appears on the scene.” She also suggests that another red flag is social isolation. “Loved ones should be on the lookout for any sudden changes in social networks and patterns of behavior.”

The Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors Forum has developed a series of resources for seniors including What every older Canadian should know about financial abuse.

If you think you or someone you know is experiencing financial abuse, ask for help. Abusers may try to make the victims think that they are the causing the problem, but this is typically not true. If injured parties do not have a family member or close friend who can help them, there are community resources they can use to stop the abuse.

For example, banks or credit unions, local seniors’ centres, doctors and the local police can help. The Saskatchewan Public Guardian and Trustee works to protect vulnerable adults’ property and can also investigate allegations of financial abuse.

Here are some tips and safeguards to help protect yourself or others who may be vulnerable to elder financial abuse now or in future:

  • Keep your financial and personal information in a safe place.
  • Have an enduring or continuing power of attorney prepared appointing someone you can trust to look after you, so that even if you are ill and unable to look after yourself, your finances will be protected from others who might try to take advantage of you.
  • Ask for help if you think you are experiencing financial abuse.
  • Keep a record of money you give away and note whether it is a loan or a gift.
  • For major decisions involving your home or other property, get your own legal advice before signing documents.
  • Ask someone you trust to look over contracts and other papers before you sign them.
  • Be very cautious if you open a joint bank account – the other person can take away all the money without asking.
  • Make an effort to keep in touch with a variety of friends and family so you don’t become isolated.

Laura Watts, a Toronto lawyer who focuses on elder law issues told Global News the prototypical “unsuccessful son in the basement” accounts for about 75% of elder financial abuse cases perpetrated by family members. “Picking a power of attorney with budgeting acumen and who isn’t in financial stress themselves is critical,” Watts says. “You should always pick someone who doesn’t need money.”


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Written by Sheryl Smolkin
Sheryl Smolkin LLB., LLM is a retired pension lawyer and President of Sheryl Smolkin & Associates Ltd. For over a decade, she has enjoyed a successful encore career as a freelance writer specializing in retirement, employee benefits and workplace issues. Sheryl and her husband Joel are empty-nesters, residing in Toronto with their cockapoo Rufus.
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