As the population ages and the Baby Boomer generation enters retirement, incidents of financial elder abuse are growing more common — and accountants need to be more vigilant than ever in looking after their clients’ interests, according to Randy Werner, a CPA and loss prevention specialist at professional liability insurer CAMICO.
Werner noted that accountants, with intimate knowledge of their clients’ finances, are well-placed to detect elder abuse, which can range from relatives trying to gain inappropriate control of a senior’s finances to carefully orchestrated fraud schemes.
Among the warnings signs she pointed out are:
• Unusual purchases or new purchasing patterns. If a client suddenly begins diverging from their usual spending habits — by buying large appliances or expensive jewelry, for instance — the accountant may want to investigate.
• New people in the client’s life. While some elder abuse is perpetrated by family members, much is carried on by strangers who insinuate themselves into the senior’s life, whether as a new caregiver, friend, romantic interest or even as a financial “advisor.” All too often, seniors who feel isolated in retirement are vulnerable to this kind of approach.
• Major changes to the client’s financial arrangements. If a client suddenly begins changing beneficiaries, creating new powers of attorney, liquidating or re-allocating their financial holdings, or otherwise deviating from their previously established financial plan, it may be in response to the manipulations of an abuser.
• Secretive or changed behavior. The influence of the abuser can often cause clients to become less communicative, withdrawing from and, in some cases, actively distrusting other family members, friends and their professional advisors.
Werner noted that there are many resources for reporting and dealing with elder abuse that vary from state to state. As liability and confidentiality rules also vary, she suggested that accountants who suspect their senior clients are being abused should start by contacting the firm’s lawyer or insurance provider for advice and guidance on the best way to proceed.
One of the best approaches to elder abuse, according to Werner, is to discuss the possibility of it in advance with clients and their family members, and to create legal and reporting structures that make it more difficult for abusers to take advantage of vulnerable seniors.