The response of most right-thinking people to an older or vulnerable adult is to ensure that they are properly cared for and able to enjoy their life. The care sector in particular is at the forefront of making sure that growing older or facing challenges is not something that will prevent a person from having a good quality of life and looking forward.
Regrettably not everyone is as altruistic in their approach and financial abuse of older and vulnerable adults is an increasingly frequent cause of concern. Spotting the signs and risks of this can be key in alerting wider family and stopping this type of abuse in its tracks.
What is financial abuse?
Section 42(3) of the Care Act 2014 defines abuse as including
“ (a) having money or other property stolen,
(b) being defrauded,
(c) being put under pressure in relation to money or other property, and
(d) having money or other property misused”
Financial abuse can take many forms and will include the obvious – theft and fraud – but also behaviour that is harder to identify such as coercion, the misuse of a power of attorney or even predatory marriage.
Family members may often find themselves excluded when financial abuse is taking place. The very nature of the approach to an older or vulnerable adult is predicated on the idea that they are isolated from close family member who might otherwise protect them. The self-isolation (including restrictions on visitors to people in care homes) that the pandemic has forced upon us all has only increased the incidence of abuse of this nature.
Coercion can occur in many ways and is not always easy to spot. The idea of an obvious “threat” underestimates the scheming and manipulative nature of some campaigns that are waged to persuade people to transfer assets, make a Will or execute a Power of Attorney.
Over time older or vulnerable adults may be persuaded that a course of action which in fact amounts to financial abuse is “in their best interests” or that in fact other family members have deserted them and should be disinherited or replaced as Attorney.
The drip, drip, drip effect of some forms of coercion may make then very difficult to identify but those watching from the outside should pay attention to a feeling of unease – that can be a great barometer for something not being right. If coercion is suspected then looking at the circumstances in which a person is involved in the life of an older or vulnerable adult and considering whether that circle of influence should be widened is imperative.
Where Wills are concerned, marked changes in the disposition of an estate – changing the inheritance of one person so that they benefit to a far greater extent – should be red flags for the risk of undue influence. Undue influence is far more than someone being threatened into changing their Will. Emotional pressure can be brought to bear, particularly where one party is able to access (and possibly care for) an older person far more than another. These situations often come to light only after a person has died but if there is a suspicion that a person has been coerced or unduly influenced into making a Will in a particular way they can make a new Will during their lifetime or – if they no longer have testamentary capacity – the Court can be invited to approve a Statutory Will on their behalf. In making a Statutory Will the Court will take account of evidence as to what a person would likely have wanted to do.
Misuse of a Power of Attorney
The appointment of an Attorney can often give older or vulnerable adults peace of mind – there is someone appointed who can take care of their affairs for them if they are not able to.
Lasting Powers of Attorney formally appoint a trusted person to stand in the shoes of the maker and allow them to take decisions on their behalf. Notice has to be given to others of the appointment but in the case of older or vulnerable adults it is not always the case that the “right” people will be notified.
A person committed to financial abuse may well persuade the maker not to notify their own children because “they will only cause trouble if they know they are not being appointed”. Once appointed, a person whose intention is to defraud or take advantage has easy access to the maker’s bank accounts and other assets. It can be a fairly quick process for someone appointed as Attorney to transfer funds into their own account or to spend money that is not for the benefit of the donor of the Power of Attorney.
A red flag would be any comment made by someone about changing their Attorney. This is particularly if they are changing from a family member or couple of appointed people to one person who is a position of significant control and influence over the maker.
The Office of the Public Guardian or the Court of Protection will investigate the actions of Attorneys whilst the maker is alive and may revoke the Power of Attorney and appoint a professional Deputy to step in. After the death of the maker, investigating wrong-doing can be more difficult and recovering assets that have been misappropriated even more so.
There is a rise in predatory marriages, in part because of the ready access of lonely adults to “internet dating” and the prevalence of people preying on those perceived to have wealth through the promise of love and companionship.
Such tales of villainy are not limited to older adults – when it comes to matters of the heart vulnerability can occur at any age. But with older adults there is the added attraction of the prospect of accumulated wealth which can make a predatory marriage appear to be an easy means of securing an inheritance.
In English law marriage rather than divorce revokes any previous valid Will. Even if no new Will is made the laws of intestacy now provide that a widow or widower will receive the first £270,000 of an estate together with all personal possessions. The remaining Estate is then split equally between the spouse and any children of the deceased. By this route a widow or widower who has married just for financial gain can increase their wealth significantly.
The test for capacity to marry is much lower than the capacity required to make a Will or execute a Power of Attorney but where someone has been “groomed” over a period of time and believes themselves in love they may well present with sufficient capacity.
Again, wider family may be the answer and ensuring that an older or vulnerable adult is not isolated – from friends or family – can be key to providing protection from those who are looking to exploit the situation.
Knowledge is power
In cases of financial abuse of older or vulnerable adults, the perpetrator may be relying on the ability to conduct their campaign quietly and in the background, without being noticed by others until the damage has been done.
There is no substitute for talking to people when it comes to finding out what is actually going on, what ideas someone is putting in their head or what misconceptions they may be under. Any concerns should be taken seriously – that nagging feeling that something is not right will nine times out of ten be right.
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