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Lessons Learned From Elder Family Financial Exploitation

Lessons Learned from Elder Family Financial Exploitation

| Marlene Stum, PhD; Professor of Family Social Science and Extension Specialist; University of Minnesota |

No one is immune to elder family financial exploitation (EFFE).  It can happen to anyone, anytime.  EFFE is the illegal, unauthorized, or improper use or withholding of an older person’s financial assets or personal property.  Too often a silent problem, estimates suggest that 1 in 15 older adults will experience EFFE.  This doesn’t mean older adults and their family members should wait and see what happens. When asked about lessons learned, family members who have experienced EFFE suggest being proactive.  Whether an older adult or family member, four strategies are suggested to help avoid EFFE:  planning, communication, being involved and trusting your instincts.

These strategies are from a University of Minnesota research project examining the experiences of EFFE (Stum/author is lead researcher).  Family members who had experienced EFFE as non-abusers, most often as an adult child of the elder victim, and as a sibling of the primary perpetrator, voluntarily participated in the study.  In a majority of financial exploitation cases it is a family member who is the perpetrator or person doing the exploiting, often an adult child, an in-law, or a younger family member such as a grandchild.  The impact of EFFE not only robs older adult victims of their financial security and health and well-being, but also has a ripple effect on the older adult’s family.  EFFE forever changes family relationships, overall family functioning, and the health and well-being of family members.

To help prevent EFFE, older adults and their family members are encouraged to focus on four strategies family members who have experienced EFFE wished they would have addressed.

Plan Ahead.  Plan for your future by creating financial and health care related advance planning documents (i.e. financial power of attorney, health care directive, will).  Anticipate and plan for the potential of not being able to make or communicate your own decisions and the reality of death.  Develop legally recognized documents versus relying on informal family agreements.  Think very carefully about who you want to manage your money or property on your behalf and the types of qualities you want in a person responsible for acting in your best interests (e.g. financial power of attorney). All too often, older adults select the wrong person(s) for these critical roles. Beware of selecting family members who have a sense of entitlement, a history of being irresponsible with money, or are in financially needy situations. Beware of anyone who is coercing or bullying you to create or change your planning documents.

Communicate.  Make conversations about money, advance planning wishes and documents, and expectations about the use of older parent’s resources normal in your family. Involve older parents, adult children, in-laws, and other family members across the generations in these critical conversations.  Avoid family secrets about money or property.  Have open conversations about decision making roles and expectations involving money, property, health care, and caregiving.  The more family members aware of an older person’s wishes and plans, the more accountability is possible within the family.

Be Involved.   Find meaningful ways to be present and involved in your older parent’s life.  Don’t let physical or emotional distance keep you from knowing what’s really going on day-to-day.  Adult children too often make incorrect assumptions about a parent’s financial decision-making capacity, physical, mental, or financial health.  If you are the older parent, keep in touch with family, friends, and stay active in your community. Being isolated is a key risk factor for EFFE.

Trust Your Instincts. If something feels off, or your gut reaction is telling you something isn’t right, listen, document, and take action.  It could be something an older parent says, changes in behavior, how a sibling is treating others, or a new vehicle an unemployed daughter and caregiver is driving. Speaking up, asking questions, and getting help can help stop EFFE before more damage occurs.  If you want to talk through your suspicions and potential courses of action, contact the appropriate supportive services in the state where the victim lives (Visit the National Center for Elder Abuse state resources page at:  Call 911 if an elder is in crisis or immediate danger.

To learn more about the critical role of concerned family members in the lives of EFFE victims visit NCRAN’s archived webinar offered on February 5, 2021. 

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