In his WSJ article, wealth advisor Paul Hynes points out that financial advisors can spot and do something about financial elder abuse. He comments that financial advisors are in a unique position to observe their clients over years, sometimes decades. Knowing a client well gives them the vantage point to understand their clients’ normal general life situations as well as their patterns of using their accounts.
I agree with Mr. Hynes that advisors are well positioned to spot red flags in their clients’ lives and any unusual activity in their accounts. He suggests that advisors can contact Adult Protective Services if abuse is suspected. Here is where I question his advice as falling a bit short.
As part of the national legal community dedicating time to the protection of vulnerable elders I see communications from lawyers all over the U.S. with complaints that Adult Protective Services are not taking financial elder abuse seriously enough in many places. When it is reported, APS may dismiss it as “a civil matter” in which they have no interest. APS is essentially an investigative help to the criminal justice system. It can intervene when an elder is in physical danger. Social workers and investigators from APS look into reports of abuse and help the DA determine whether there is evidence sufficient to prosecute a crime. If the matter involves the undue influence of a family member and the elder seems willing to give away money, even if duped into doing so, APS is unlikely to take any action.
Financial advisors cannot rely on the average community’s APS to protect their clients when abuse is suspected. Particularly in the case of family, close associates, and caregivers, APS may not wish to interfere unless or until an obvious crime has been committed. Many of these abusive situations are not so obvious, or the elder appears to be willing to give away his assets, and he may not see that anything is wrong. it is up to others to work to stop the abuse, including financial advisors, who may be in a highly trusted position with the elder.
The financial services industry, generally, has avoided certain kinds of communication with family of aging investors due to privacy laws, concerns which they interpret as precluding them from sharing financial information. I do not agree that privacy should stop advisors from communication with family when an elder clearly needs protective action. There is a way around the privacy question. Policy can be created to obtain permission from every client to communicate with a family member or trusted other appointed to step in when the advisor (and compliance) have reasonably concluded that the elder is being taken advantage of financially or otherwise.
If you see something, say something” is what we are supposed to do to stop terrorist attacks. It is also what we need to do to stop elder financial abuse. The financial industry needs to develop new, forward looking, senior specific policies to address what Hynes correctly points out as the rampant problem of elder abuse.
Here at Aging Investor, we are doing our part to help by developing educational materials for industry professionals. We want every professional to recognize the red flags warnings of potential abuse, to understand diminished financial capacity and to how to get the necessary document in place around the issue of privacy. Aging expertise from outside the financial services field is needed for all of these points. I hope all advisors, their compliance departments and organizational heads will pursue what FINRA has urged on you since 2008: that senior-specific policies be put in place to stem the rising tide of elder financial abuse of their own aging clients.
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