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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

How Seniors and Their Adult Children Can Prevent Elder Financial Abuse

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Although it’s estimated that one in five seniors are a victim of financial abuse, losing approximately $37 billion a year, few seniors and their families are doing enough to prevent it.

According to the 2018 Wells Fargo Elder Needs Survey of seniors and their adult children — each with at least $25,000 in investable assets — only one-third of older Americans have talked to their children about how they plan to manage their finances. Just 12% think they need help with their finances in their later years, but 43% of their children expect they will.

Four out of five adult children of seniors want their parents to plan for their old age, but 35% of older Americans say too much planning distracts from enjoying life and 57% see no urgency to talk about their elder needs. In addition to these disconnects, the survey found areas of agreement, but not for the benefit of the seniors.

More than one-third of seniors who are parents say it’s difficult to talk with their children about the challenges to come in their later years, including one-quarter who reported difficulties talking about money and finances with their children. Similarly, about one-third of adult children are uncomfortable discussing money matters with their parents. Close to 800 older Americans over 60 and nearly 800 adult children age 45 to 69 were surveyed, plus an additional 272 seniors and 270 adult children with at least $1 million in assets.

“When you don’t have the conversation, seniors are more vulnerable,” said Desari Mueller, communications consultant for Wells Fargo Advisors, at a presentation about the report.

Both age groups also believe that a stranger is most likely to perpetuate a scam against seniors — 68% of seniors and 55% of adult children — and both are wrong. Two-thirds of elder financial crimes are committed by family members, friends or trusted contacts, according to a Jewish Council for the Aging study that the survey cites.

Both groups also overwhelmingly (98%) say that older people are susceptible to scams but only 1 in 10 older seniors believe they will fall victim, while close to one in four adult children feel their parents are susceptible although three-quarters are confident their parents won’t fall victim.

Financial abuse has repercussions beyond money issues.

“Financial exploitation can kill people,” said Kezeli Wold, Associate Commissioner for Adult Protective Services in the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, who also participated in the presentation.

Wold explained that seniors who are short of funds as a result of financial fraud may find they can’t afford to maintain their health — visiting doctors and filling prescriptions — while under extra stress. “There is no immunity from exploitation as long as the money is there.”

With that in mind, Wells Fargo developed a guide to protect seniors against elder financial abuse that is being distributed to their financial advisors and firm’s branches.

It lists eight items that seniors should complete to prepare for their later years so that they’re children won’t have to intervene:

  • Organize documents and passwords
  • Discuss with the family who will manage affairs
  • Discuss inheritance plans with family
  • Have a will
  • Have an advance health care directive
  • Have a power of attorney for health care
  • Have a power of attorney for financial matters
  • Tell the family how much money there is

The guide also lists eight primary protections that seniors should have in place and recommends that a trusted person be notified where any pertinent documentation can be found.

With the exception of direct deposit and annual credit reports, less than half the seniors surveyed have set up these protections and one-third or less of their adult children have any idea about what their parents have arranged. The protections are:

  • Direct deposit so others can’t cash checks
  • Annual credit report checks
  • Automatic bill pay so others aren’t writing checks
  • Not signing documents without another reviewing them first
  • “Trusted contact” on file at financial firm
  • Checks or credit cards kept in locked cabinets
  • Alerts of large transactions sent to others
  • Copies of financial statements sent to others

Ron Long, Wells Fargo’s director of regulatory affairs and elder client initiative, noted that financial advisors can discuss these items with clients at their annual meeting, asking, for example, if the client has arranged for a power of attorney and for trusted contacts.

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