Elder Financial Abuse Risk Increasing for Seniors Isolated by Pandemic

The extended isolation and loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic is creating the perfect storm for financial exploitation of seniors, who are unable to visit with family members and friends, reports Fredericksburg Today in the article “SCC urges awareness of investment fraud among seniors due to increased pandemic isolation.” The unprecedented need to forgo socializing makes seniors who are already at risk, even more vulnerable.

In the past, scammers would deliberately strike during a health crisis or after the death of a loved one. By gathering data from obituaries and social media, even establishing relationships with support and social groups, scammers can work their way into seniors’ lives.

Social distancing and the isolation necessary to protect against the spread of the coronavirus has left many seniors vulnerable to people posing as their new friends. The perpetrators may not just be strangers: family members are often the ones who exploit the elderly. The pandemic has also led to changes in procedures in care facilities, which can lead to increased confusion and dependence for the elderly, who do not always do well with changes.

Here are a few key markers for senior financial abuse:

  • A new friend or caregiver who is overly protective and has gotten the person to surrender control of various aspects of their life, including but not limited to finances.
  • Fear or a sudden change in how they feel towards family members and/or friends.
  • A reluctance to discuss financial matters, especially if they say the new friend told them not to talk about their money with others.
  • Sudden changes in spending habits, or unexplained changes to wills, new trustees, or changes to beneficiary designations.
  • Large checks made out to cash, or the disappearance of assets.
  • Signatures on checks or estate planning documents that appear different than past signatures.

Not being able to visit in person makes it harder for family members to discern what is happening.  However, there are a few steps that can be taken by concerned family members. Stay in touch with the family member, by phone, video calls, texts or any means possible. Remind loved ones that scammers are always looking for an opportunity and may try to exploit them during the pandemic.

Every community has resources that can help, if elder financial abuse is a concern. An elder law estate planning attorney will be able to direct concerned family members or friends to local resources to protect their loved ones.

Reference: Fredericksburg Today (June 20, 2020) “SCC urges awareness of investment fraud among seniors due to increased pandemic isolation”

Elder Financial Abuse Fraud Occurs, When No One’s Watching

The case of Nice vs. U.S. is a dramatic example of what can happen when there are no professionals involved in an elderly person’s finances and one person has the power to make transactions without supervision. In the article “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud” from Financial Planning, a trusted son allegedly decimated his mother’s IRA and left her estate with $500,000 tax bill.

Mrs. Nice and her husband had been married for more than 60 years. Before he died in 2002, her husband arranged to leave significant assets for his wife’s care. Their son Chip was named executor of the husband’s estate and moved in with his mother. In 2007, she was diagnosed with dementia. As her condition deteriorated, Chip allegedly began fraudulent activities. He gained access to her IRAs, causing distributions to be made from the IRAs and then allegedly taking the funds for his own use.

Chip also filed federal income tax returns for his mother, causing her to execute a fraudulent power of attorney. The federal tax returns treated the IRA distributions as taxable income to Mrs. Nice. She not only lost the money in her IRA but got hit with a whopping tax bill.

In 2014, Mrs. Nice’s daughter Julianne applied for and received a temporary injunction against Chip, removing him from her mother’s home and taking away control of her finances. Chip died in 2015. A court found that Mrs. Nice was not able to manage her own affairs and Mary Ellen was appointed as a guardian. Julianne filed amended tax returns on behalf of her mother, claiming a refund for tax years 2006-07 and 2009-13. The IRS accepted the claim for 2009 but denied the claims for 2006 and 2010-2013. The appeal for 2009 was accepted, but the IRS never responded to the claim for 2007. Julianne appealed the denials, but each appeal was denied.

By then, Mrs. Nice had died. Julianne brought a lawsuit against the IRS seeking a refund of $519,502 in federal income taxes plus interest and penalties. The suit contended that because of her brother’s alleged fraudulent acts, Mrs. Nice never received the IRA distributions. Her tax returns for 2011-2014 overstated her actual income, the suit maintained, and she was owed a refund for overpayment. The court did not agree, stating that Julianne failed to show that her mother did not receive the IRA funds and denied the claim.

There are a number of harsh lessons to be learned from this family’s unhappy saga.

When IRA funds are mishandled or misappropriated, it may be possible for the amounts taken to be rolled over to an IRA, if a lawsuit to recover the losses occurs in a timely manner. In 2004, the IRS issued 11 private-letter rulings that allow lawsuit settlements to be rolled over to IRAs. The IRS allowed the rollovers and gave owners 60 days from the receipt of settlement money to complete the rollover.

Leaving one family member in charge of family wealth with no oversight from anyone else—a trustee, an estate planning attorney, or a financial planner—is a recipe for elder financial abuse. Even if the funds had remained in the IRA, a fiduciary would have kept an eye on the funds and any distributions that seemed out of order.

One of the goals of an estate plan is to protect the family’s assets, even from members of their own family. An estate plan can be devised to arrange for the care of a loved one, at the same time it protects their financial interests.

Reference: Financial Planning (March 6, 2020) “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud”