The Senior Safe Act allows you to hold transactions when you suspect financial abuse of a client. The Act is designed, at least in theory, to allow time for the trusted contacts you have on file to take appropriate action. Many of those victimized by predators or manipulated by unscrupulous family have dementia and have lost their judgment about what makes sense financially. The Act urges you to get trusted contacts and provides that you are not breaking privacy rules to contact them in the reasonable belief that your client is being financially abused. The length of time you can hold a requested transaction can be as long as a month. This is where the Senior Safe Act has missed the mark.
Let’s look at the reality of impaired elders who are in charge of their wealth on the family trust. The trust is in order, and if the elder recognizes that he or she is experiencing decline in mental ability, that trustee may choose to resign. Simple. But that is not what happens in too many cases. For many persons who have cognitive decline and dementia, the elder does not recognize that he is impaired at all. “I feel fine!” he tells his worried family. When asked to resign as trustee, having total control over (theoretically) millions of dollars in a trust, the elder flatly and stubbornly refuses. Meanwhile, financial abuse by predatory people can continue unabated.
When an older person experiences cognitive decline, it typically has a very slow onset. Short-term memory loss does not raise enough red flags for those closest to the elder to take any action. “She’s just getting old” they say dismissively. But memory loss is often the first and earliest warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. The odds of having Alzheimer’s disease by age 85 are at least one in three. Think about your own older clients. Some live well beyond age 85. The risk of dementia rises with age. Short-term memory loss interfering with daily life is not a normal part of aging. Financial abuse and cognitive impairment often go together.
Related: Advisors: Warn Your Aging Clients About New Telephone Scams
When financial abuse reaches a visible level, the advisor may do what the law allows and call the trusted contact person, usually an adult child. The advisor hopes that the call will somehow trigger something and the abuse will be stopped. But here is a reality check: The family can’t accomplish anything needed in two weeks or even a month if you hold transactions then. Here is a real case example of just such a situation, showing how long it really did take.
In our work with a family at AgingParents.com we saw rampant financial abuse of an elder by a family member. The elder had dementia but had not been formally diagnosed by his doctor. Over 70% of his income was going to the predator. He was asked to resign as trustee by his two adult children, who were reasonably worried that he was going to give away all his cash and further encumber his home. The dad, whom we’ll call Gene, had been developing dementia for at least two years. He felt obligated to the predator and was totally powerless in resisting her demands for money. He just kept writing checks, draining his own resources. It was clearly a case of financial manipulation.
We were involved in working to persuade Gene to allow what his family trust provided: to have his daughter, Jennie, become the successor trustee. He agreed, then reneged. He accepted the logic and then refused to accept it. The kids had no choice but to use the law to take over control. Their father was too stubborn to resign as trustee when asked, even with the entire family presenting a united front, asking and respectfully begging.
The trust, like many such documents provided that Gene could be removed as trustee by his appointed successor, his daughter, after two physicians had declared him to be incapacitated for handling his own finances. A court decision was not required. However, getting him to two doctors willing to assess him and put their observations in writing was a challenge that took months to accomplish. The total time spent getting the change of trustees accomplished according to the terms of Gene’s trust was eight months.
His children were the trusted contacts in the advisor’s file. They knew about the abuse and were in agreement with the advisor that Gene had to stop being the trustee. The adult children had to hire consultants (AgingParents.com), have meetings, hire an attorney, and try various methods to get the job done. Their time energy and thousands of dollars were expended to prevent an even worse outcome, which was being left to support their aging father if he were to totally deplete his own funds.
- Though well intended, we do not expect that the Senior Safe Act will do much to stop financial abuse because of the short time allowed for a financial professional to hold transactions. In Gene’s case, the predator would have been happy to wait a mere two weeks or a month before resuming the financial manipulation of Gene.
- Know that any older impaired client may not understand that he or she is cognitively impaired and will ignore pleas to resign as trustee with total control over any family trust.
- If you see that an older client is showing signs of cognitive decline, do not wait until it gets worse. Reach out at the time of your first suspicions of trouble. The family or other trusted persons may well have a better opportunity to persuade an elder to transfer power over finances to the appointed successor before complete loss of capacity. Expect this to take time.
In the case described above as a result of ongoing financial abuse, nearly all of Gene’s cash was depleted during the eight months of effort on the part of his adult children to have him removed. The advisor did the right thing but too much of Gene’s cash was depleted in the period when the abuser could keep manipulating him for those months of effort by family to have him removed as trustee.
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