Estate Planning: Guard Against Financial Fraud

Tamara Polley
By Tamara Polley March 15, 2017 16:47

Just as we in the foothills are particularly susceptible to wildfire, those 60 and over are at a higher risk for financial abuse.

And no wonder: People over 50 control 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, according to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, and many seniors have disabilities that leave them dependent on others for help.

Sometimes family members are the abusers, but professional predators are always looking for ways to scam older adults and steal their money.

Just as maintaining 100 feet of defensible space can save your house from flames, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from financial abuse.

Plan ahead  Make sure your paperwork is in order so that a trustworthy relative or friend (your “agent”) can assist when you are older and perhaps at higher risk for abuse. Powers of attorney, advance medical directives and trusts can provide that person with tools to help and protect you. Prepare these documents early when you are clearly able to make your own decisions. Controlling access to your confidential information now will help protect you from predators if you become less able to defend yourself.

Let your agent know your plans and desires. Tell him or her where to find your legal documents, and provide information regarding your finances so he or she will recognize a problem if there is a sudden change in your investments or account balances.

Introduce the agent to your professional advisors (CPA, attorney, financial planner, banker, etc.), and to your medical providers so he or she knows who to ask for help if someone is trying to take advantage of you.

Educate yourself Not understanding your own financial investments or depending on someone else to pay the bills makes you much more susceptible to abuse.

Many times in marriage we “divide and conquer” – each spouse assumes certain duties or chores. If you are the spouse handling finances, it is time to share information about your accounts and make a plan in case you die or become incapacitated. Better yet, begin jointly paying the bills and managing your investments. This way each of you will be prepared in the event of a crisis.

If sharing is not practical, decide in advance who will step in to assist the non-financial spouse if needed, and make sure documents are in place to make this happen.

Avoid isolation Social isolation is a big risk factor for elder abuse. Having just one person in charge of everything in your life – social activities, medical care, financial tasks, real estate and more – increases the risk that someone (perhaps that lone person in charge) could take advantage of you. Instead, surround yourself with multiple assistants (family members, friends, professional advisors, etc.). The more eyes watching out for you, the better.

Use technology to track activity The fact that virtually all bank accounts are accessible online raises the risk of fraud. Regularly check yours for suspicious activity. Elderly individuals may want to ask a trusted friend, family member or financial advisor to watch over the account. I’ve had many clients who were convinced by unsavory characters to write checks. Careful oversight may detect problems such as repeated checks to a caregiver or scam “investments.”

Speak and click carefully Neither the IRS nor banks will contact you by phone or email for confidential information. Scammers, however, constantly work the phones to steal such information from unwary consumers. They pretend to be a utility company, bank or some other agency seeking to “resolve” an issue with an account. Never provide personal information by phone or email; instead, call your bank or utility directly and speak to someone in charge. One easy way to avoid trouble? Hang up on anyone seeking such information, and don’t click on email links.

Don’t give in to pressure Don’t let anyone pressure or rush you into giving them money, buying something or signing a document. Take your time and consult with others. Have any legal document reviewed by family members, friends or professionals. Older clients frequently come in with proposed “contracts” – typically from a relative or caregiver – with ridiculous and unfavorable terms or provisions that make no sense.

If someone says you must act immediately or you will miss an opportunity, it is probably a bad deal for you.

Be wary of a new best friend  Is a new friend or a previously uninvolved family member suddenly and insistently asking for your financial information, access to your accounts, or changes to your legal documents? If so, that person could be up to no good. Before granting any such request, consult with a reliable third party.

Ask for help It can be hard to ask for help with finances, and even more embarrassing to admit that someone has taken advantage of us. But taking no action at all can only make such situations worse.

If you don’t have a family member to help you, ask your banker or accountant. Hiring a bookkeeper to assist you with the monthly bills may also be useful if you are having trouble keeping up.

There are also public agencies with Representative Payee programs that can assist with bill paying. Among them are Catholic Charities and the Tuolumne County Department of Social Services.   

Financial elder abuse is a serious problem in our country, and the idea that it may happen to you is frightening. Being aware of the potential danger and taking steps to protect yourself in advance will reduce your risk of becoming a victim.

Tamara Polley is an attorney with Gianelli & Polley, a Sonora law firm, gianellilaw.com.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Tamara Polley
By Tamara Polley March 15, 2017 16:47
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