Attorney Phil Brown knows this all too well, having spent the last decade of a 45-year career in law focusing on financial fraud plied against the elderly. According to an exhaustive study undertaken by the MetLife Mature Market Institute in association with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA), elder financial abuse represented a $2.9 billion problem in the US in 2010, a 12 percent increase from $2.6 billion reported in 2008. *
And while various facets of aging ??" such as confusion, indecision, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia ??" may occur, a recent study suggests that a senior loses cognitive capacity for understanding financial matters while retaining their confidence nonetheless. In his study, Old Age and the Decline in Financial Literacy,** researcher Michael S. Finke of Texas Tech University found that financial literacy scores decline by 2 percent each year after the age of 60, contributing to poor credit and investment choices by older respondents.
Combine such a cognitive decline with advisors or family members who endeavor to take advantage of a situation, and the results can be tragic.
Brown,in an interview with LawyersandSettlements.com writer Brenda Craig, noted that in his experience family members will often advise a parent to turn over a bank account or other investment to them for safe keeping, only to siphon away the assets once control has been seized. Persuading an elderly parent to turn over a title to property is another ploy. “It’s quite like stealing,” Brown says, adding that it’s rare to be brought in by a concerned third party before a financial indiscretion takes place. In most cases, he says, “The financial fraud against the victim has already occurred.” This leaves Brown with the sometimes difficult task of unravelling the exploitation and making things right.
“Every case is different. It often involves complex family relationships, or a caregiver who takes advantage of the situation; it’s always slightly different. The reality is that financial exploitation of elders has been going on forever. There are just more elderly people these days and more cases of financial elder abuse,” says Brown.
“You’ve got to catch the money real fast or you will never find out where it’s gone,” Brown continues. “In one case, I had to phone up a son who’d had his mother unknowingly sign over her bank accounts to him. Within days, the accounts were drained. I phoned the son and said ‘your mother wants her money back.’ That’s one where we did have to go court, and, yes, we got the accounts back.”
A graduate of Berkeley and UCLA Law, and a founding partner at Phil Brown Law in Beverly Hills, Brown notes that things are not always as they appear. As such, seemingly trustworthy advisors or family members can turn around and take advantage of a trusting senior with cognitive issues. And sometimes assets are gifted to someone quite properly, even though on the surface it appears suspect.
“I have represented defendants where someone is making a claim that a gift was obtained improperly and in fact it wasn’t,” says Brown. “Several years ago my client was supposed to inherit a house. She had a friend she met in a doctor’s office where they were both going for treatment. The woman had no spouse and no children and she gifted the house to my client,” says Brown, who adds that his client was accused of manipulating the situation under protections against financial fraud and elder financial exploitation within California law.
“She hadn’t done that, of course,” says Brown. “It was a true gift and we got [his client] the house.”
Brown advises that seniors acquire separate powers of attorney for medical and financial matters. “Pick people you trust,” he says. “If you have two people on your team, they can keep each other in check.”
** MetLife Mature Market Institute, National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA), “Broken Trust: Elders, Family, and Finances” (2010), Dr. Karen A. Roberto, Virginia Tech, Dr. Pamela B. Teaster, University of Kentucky, pg.2, http://www.preventelderabuse.org/documents/mmi-elder-financial-abuse.pdf
***”Old Age and the Decline in Financial Literacy”, Michael S. Fink, John S. Howe, Sandra J. Huston, August 24, 2011. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1948627
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