Emotional harm of elder financial abuse outweighs its financial damage

By Courtney L. Vien

Financial abuse more frequently hurts senior citizens emotionally than it does financially, according to a recent survey of CPA financial planners.

Thirty-seven percent of the 266 planners polled in the AICPA PFP Trends Survey in May rated the emotional impact of elder financial abuse as “substantial.” Yet just 5% rated the financial impact of such abuse as “substantial.”

The reason elder financial abuse causes such emotional pain may be the fact that family members are often the perpetrators. Seventy-two percent of planners said that during the last five years, they’d had elderly clients who were unable to refuse family members’ requests for gifts or loans. Fifty-seven percent said they’d had older clients who were supporting nondisabled adult children.

Nearly 4 out of 5 financial planners (79%) reported that they had clients fall victim to internet or phone scams in the past five years. Half had clients whose identities were stolen.

Though slightly less than half of the financial planners surveyed (47%) said they thought elder abuse was on the rise, 73% said they encountered it at least a few times a year.  

Financial planners have also had to address other concerns of aging clients, the survey found, including where clients should live in their declining years. Planners said that they had helped 15% of their elderly clients make decisions about housing or perform nursing home due-diligence analysis in the past year. Forty-four percent said they provide such assistance more often now than they did five years ago.

CPA financial planners use several strategies to protect clients from elder financial abuse, including conducting periodic reviews of their financial plans and encouraging clients to run all major financial decisions past them. If clients show signs of diminished mental capacity or have a difficult time saying “no” to their relatives’ requests, financial planners may recommend placing their assets in a revocable living trust and naming a co-trustee.

Planners also suggest that advisers get to know members of their older clients’ “support teams,” including their loved ones and those authorized to make medical decisions on their behalf. As the survey found, spouses are the “team members” most likely to attend elder planning meetings alongside clients. They participate 77% of the time, whereas attorneys attend 39% of the time, and adult children attend 37% of the time. 

Courtney L. Vien (cvien@aicpa.org) is an associate editor for the AICPA.

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