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”

Still Procrastinating about Your Estate Plan?

The continuing escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to finalize estate planning documents, even as their estate planning attorneys are working from home. People are coming to terms with the stark reality: they could be struck by the disease and need to have a plan in place, reports the article “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid” from Financial Advisor.

Everyone should review their estate planning documents, including their wills, trusts and gifting techniques, to ensure that they are in line with their goals and the numerous tax law changes that have occurred in the last six months. The review of these estate planning documents is especially critical during these unpredictable times.

Here are the documents that may need to be updated:

Power of Attorney—This legal document gives a person you name the authority to handle financial affairs and protect property by acting on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.  Some of the typical tasks of your “agent” are paying bills, writing checks, selling or purchasing assets or signing tax returns.

You may name any competent adult you like. However, be certain to choose someone trusted who will put your interests above theirs. This person should possess common sense, ethics and financial acumen. Someone who lives near you, will be able to handle matters more expeditiously. Someone who is far away, may not be as effective. You should also name a back-up or secondary agent.

With no power of attorney, no one will be authorized to act on your behalf and your family will need to have the court appoint a conservator, which will take time and money.

Health-Care Proxy—This legal document gives an agent authority to make health-care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so. Without one, the family of anyone over the age of 18 will need to go to court and have a guardian appointed.

Last Will and Testament—Your last will is the legal document that gives directions to how you want your property to be distributed after you die. It is used to appoint an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. For parents of minor children, this is the document used to name a guardian to raise your children. If you don’t have a last will, the court will choose who will raise your child, who will distribute your assets and who will oversee your estate. It is much better to handle this in advance, so you are in control of these important decisions.

Living Trust—A revocable trust is a legal contract that creates an entity to hold title to your assets. As the grantor or creator of the trust, you can change it at any time. You can also set it to outlive you. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee then steps in and manages your affairs without any court intervention. A trust also gives you privacy, since it avoids the probate process.

There are many estate planning tools that may be used to pass wealth to the next generation, minimize taxe, and ensure that your legacy continues, even during these unprecedented times.

Reference: Financial Advisor (June 16, 2020) “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid”

Using Retirement Funds in a Financial Crisis

For generations, the tax code has been a public policy tool, used to encourage people to save for retirement and what used to be called “old age.” However, the coronavirus pandemic has created financial emergencies for so many households that lawmakers have responded by making it easier to tap these accounts. The article “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes” from The Wall Street Journal asks if this is really a good idea.

This shift in thinking actually coincides with trends that began to emerge before the last recession. People were living and working longer. Unemployment and career changes later in life were becoming more commonplace, and fewer and fewer people devoted four decades to working for a single employer, before retiring with an employer-funded pension.

For those who have been affected by the economic downturns of the coronavirus, withdrawals up to $100,000 from retirement savings accounts are now allowed, with no early-withdrawal penalty. That includes IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) or employment-linked 401(k) plans. In addition, $100,000 may be borrowed from 401(k) plans.

Americans are not alone in this. Australia and Malaysia are also allowing citizens to take money from retirement accounts.

Lawmakers are hoping that putting money into pockets now may help households prevent foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies, with less of an impact on government spending. With trillions in retirement accounts in the U.S., these accounts are where legislators frequently look when resources are threatened.

However, there’s a tradeoff. If you take out money from accounts that have lost value because of the market’s volatility, those losses are not likely to be recouped. And if money is taken out and not replaced when the world returns to work, there will be less money during retirement. Not only will you miss out on the money you took out, but on the return, it might have made through years of tax-advantaged investments.

The danger is that if retirement accounts are widely seen as accessible and necessary now, a return to saving for retirement or the possibility of putting money back into these accounts when the economy returns to normal may not happen.

IRA and 401(k) accounts began to supplant pensions in the 1970s as a way to encourage people to save for retirement, by deferring income tax on money that was saved. By the end of 2019, IRAs and 401(k) types of accounts held about $20 trillion in the US.

Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research has estimated that even before the coronavirus, early withdrawals were reducing retirement accounts by a quarter over 30 years, taking into account the lost returns on savings that were no longer in the accounts. For many people, taking retirement funds now may be their only choice, but the risk to their financial future and retirement is very real.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2020) “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes”