Financial elder abuse and enduring documents

Elder abuse often starts with ‘benevolent ageism’; where attitudes tip the scales towards protection and away from respect for an older person’s independence and autonomy. For example, limiting an older person’s social interactions or activities in ways that go beyond public health advice during COVID-19.

When taken to an extreme, these attitudes can result in elder abuse, leading to real harm to the older person; be it financial, physical, psychological, sexual, neglect, or a combination of these. Thanks to research by AIFS, we know that financial abuse is the type of elder abuse most commonly reported to helplines (38% of calls).

There are six key risk factors that are generally accepted for financial elder abuse:

  • a family member having a strong sense of entitlement to an older person’s property or possessions, often due to financial pressures in their own life
  • an older person having diminished capacity
  • an older person being dependent on a family member for care
  • a family member having a drug or alcohol problem
  • an older person feeling frightened of a family member
  • an older person lacking awareness of his or her rights and entitlements

I am concerned that the increasing financial stress caused by the economic impacts of COVID-19 is likely to increase incidents of financial elder abuse. I am hearing more and more troubling stories from peak bodies and frontline workers of incidents ranging from pressure to change wills to misuse of bank accounts and powers of attorney.

In many parts of Australia (although not all) helpline calls have gone up dramatically. One frontline service I spoke to experienced an increase of 40% in the first half of this year, compared with last year.

I have also heard from many lawyers about an increased demand for enduring documents, including wills, powers of attorney and advanced care directives, as well as changes to mortgage documents.

In response to this increased demand, NSW and Victoria passed temporary COVID-19-related legislation recently to make electronic signing of enduring documents easier and loosen restrictions around witnesses. Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and ACT have passed similar temporary legislation-the specifics vary state by state. While there are benefits, I am concerned that an unintended consequence could be an increase in financial elder abuse.

I encourage people of all ages to have their enduring documents in place, but it is vital that these reflect the wishes and interests of the older person, not of those around them. I continue to be reminded whenever I speak publicly that many people are not aware that a power of attorney can be revoked.

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