Older Americans are so often victims of financial abuse that the National Council on Aging estimates it costs the elderly $36.5 billion annually.
Sometimes, a financial planner is the first person to notice and they must decide whether to report the problem to the authorities. Making the call is simple when the thief isn’t related to the client. But when the miscreant is a child or grandchild, family dynamics can muddy an otherwise clear situation.
Rick Kagawa, a planner at Capital Resources & Insurance in Huntington Beach, California, called the police when a client’s gardener stole from her. The client lost about $3,500 to the man, who eluded arrest. Her family, however, took the report as a call to arms, working with Kagawa to hire a caregiver and bookkeeper for the client. "She doesn’t handle money anymore," he reports.
When the thief isn’t related to a client, calling the police or other authorities is a simple decision, Kagawa says. "It’s our duty to the client to report suspected abuse," he says.
A DISHONEST GRANDSON
When the thief is a family member, though, it’s a tougher call. Kagawa had another client who lost about $450,000 to a dishonest grandson. He called the police only when alerting the client’s family failed to stop the theft. "Before that, I held off because the family wanted to deal with it themselves," he says.
Most families prefer to deal with intra-familial financial abuse privately, agrees Quentara Costa, a planner at Powwow in North Andover, Massachusetts. "It’s a fine line, and family dynamics come into play," she says. "It’s definitely best to bring up the problem with the senior and the family first."
No planner wants to see repeated theft, but an elderly parent might be very upset to see a son go to jail for talking her out of $1,000. "If they don’t want the theft to be a big deal but they do plan to address the problem, that’s fine," Costa says. "You don’t want to cause the family unnecessary stress and strain."
The CFP Board encourages but doesn’t require planners to report suspected elder abuse. If the family doesn’t take steps to protect a client, the planner should report the problem to the police or other authorities that handle reports of suspected wrongdoing against a vulnerable person, elderly or not.
The worry that an innocent person will end up in jail shouldn’t prevent you from reporting legitimate suspicions, Kagawa says. "It’s not your job to be judge and jury," he says. "If everything is fine, the police won’t do anything." (A proposed federal law, the Senior Safe Act, would remove any liability a planner might face by reporting.)
The suspect may not end up in jail even if there is a real issue. Steve Branton, a senior planner at Mosaic Financial Planning in San Francisco, California, found that out when a client’s best friend told him that she thought her son was trying to take control of her assets. Branton’s client called state authorities about the situation, and the agency interviewed the woman’s son. "That put the son on notice that he was on someone’s radar, and they’ve had no problems since," Branton says.
Unfortunately, sometimes a thief stays out of jail because the client or the client’s family refuses to press charges.
"I’ve called Adult Protective Services and the police for an elderly client, a woman in her eighties who is no longer living," says Allan Moscowitz, principal planner at Transformative Wealth Management in El Cerrito, California. "One of her sons was a meth addict, and he would manipulate her to give him money. He had all kinds of stories: they needed it for rent, or he was in trouble with the law and needed to pay some fine. After she sold her house, she ended up giving him several hundred thousand dollars."
But Moscowitz’s client was mentally competent, and she declined to press charges. "She wasn’t willing to do anything about him," Moscowitz says.
Eventually, the woman’s family took her checkbook away, created a trust, and made other, sober children her trustees. A different son took charge of paying her bills. "That stopped the problem," Moscowitz says. "The drug addict even ended up going to rehab, and he’s doing much better. Before that, though, this was tearing the heart out of this family, and there was nothing I could do."
After the woman died, some money still remained for her heirs, Moscowitz says. "And believe it or not, the former meth addict was still an heir."