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Why Financial Elder Abuse is a Rising Crime - And What You Can Do About It

Why Financial Elder Abuse is a Rising Crime - And What You Can Do About It

Financial elder abuse is defined in the Welfare and Institutions Code Section 15610.30 and is incurred when a person takes, secretes, appropriates, obtains, or retains real or personal property of an elder (65 or older) or dependent adult, or assists in doing so, for a wrongful purpose or with the intent to defraud. Such appropriation is found when the person knew or should have known that his/her conduct was likely to be harmful to the victim. This includes undue influence, gifts, and donative transfers such as a change to a will or trust.

Who are the Perpetrators?

Financial elder abuse is fast-becoming one of the biggest crimes against our elderly population. One of the reasons this lesser-known crime occurs so often unseen is because in most cases it is perpetrated by a member of the victim's own family. Quite often, it is difficult to recognize financial elder abuse because we think of a perpetrator in the form of a contractor charging for unnecessary items, a phone scammer claiming you won the lottery, or a gardener who suddenly ends up the sole heir to your parents' estate. To the contrary, the fact is that much of the time the perpetrator is a member of the victim's own family. Often the victim will not report the abuse due to fear or embarrassment, which exacerbates the difficulty of detecting and ending the abuse.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents even more opportunity for perpetrators to take advantage of those vulnerable to abuse, especially if the perpetrator already resides with the victim. The elderly are especially vulnerable to infection from COVID-19 and are encouraged to stay inside and not to socialize in-person with others. This means less contact with friends/family who cannot come to visit in-person any longer, opting instead for phone calls. It is therefore easier for perpetrators to initiate and sustain the financial abuse for an extended period with less fear of apprehension.

Perpetrators often claim to be the "caregiver" while asserting that the victim continues to make all the decisions. However, upon further investigation, it may turn out that the perpetrator has control of the victims' checkbook and ATM card, credit card, and online access to bank accounts under the guise that they are responsible for paying bills for the victim and running errands. The perpetrator may also have received "gifts" from the victim in the form of cash, vehicles, and sometimes houses and other more expensive items.

Signs of Elder Abuse

  1. The victim no longer manages his or her own finances
  2. Isolation from family/friends, such as monitored phone calls, and required scheduling of visits
  3. Callers/visitors are consistently told that the victim is sleeping and cannot visit or talk
  4. Relationships with the victim become estranged without explanation
  5. Sudden changes to the victim's estate plan to the exclusion of other close family members
  6. Sudden changes in the appointment of financial decision-maker(s) for the victim
  7. The perpetrator has a new car, takes trips, purchases luxury items, when he/she doesn't otherwise have other income
  8. The perpetrator receives gifts of money or property, especially when the gifts are not fairly-balanced between the other children or the victim cannot afford to make such gifts
  9. The victim's mood dramatically changes without explanation, such as depression or fear.

What Can You Do?

  1. Ask questions of the victim and/or the perpetrator. And then ask more questions!
  2. Contact Adult Protective Services to report the suspected abuse
  3. Contact local law enforcement to conduct a welfare check on the victim

Can Anything Be Done After Death?

Yes. Even after the victim has passed away, family members may still pursue a claim of financial elder abuse against the perpetrator. Contact Mortensen & Reinheimer, PC for a consultation regarding how you can recover the property and punish the perpetrator.

About the author:
Noah B. Herbold, Attorney, is a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law (The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization). His primary focus is assisting clients with litigated matters such as: Trust Contests, Breach of Trust, Fiduciary Appointment and/or Removal, Asset Ownership, Beneficiary Rights, Determination of Heirship, Elder Financial Abuse, Property Disputes, and Conservatorships. Contact Noah at noah@ocestateplanning.net.