What Is Financial Elder Abuse?

Financial elder abuse involves taking advantage of older people and unfairly benefiting from their monetary resources. Family members, business associates, caregivers, and strangers sometimes financially abuse elders by taking advantage of their trust. Tactics involved in financial elder abuse include the unauthorized use of an older person’s assets, gaining power of attorney by way of trickery, or engaging in fraud.

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that financial elder abuse has been self-reported more frequently than emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, or neglect.
  • Older adults can be abused by family members, business associates, caregivers, and even strangers.
  • Tactics include unauthorized use of financial assets, getting power of attorney assigned through false pretenses, and engaging in fraud.
  • Warning signs include rapid drawdowns in financial accounts, increased account activity, new accounts opened without the account holder’s knowledge, and recent changes to important documents such as wills, mortgages, trusts, and deeds.

Understanding Financial Elder Abuse

Financial elder abuse often involves family members who think they are entitled to a parent’s, grandparent's, or other older relative's assets. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a 2011 New York State study found that 41 in 1,000 elders reported financial abuse, a rate higher than that for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, or for neglect. The organization also notes this figure typically is underreported. Abusers exploit as many as five million older Americans financially each year, costing them $3 to $36.5 billion annually. 

Individuals at risk for financial elder abuse include older adults who depend on personal care from others, those who recently lost a spouse who handled the finances, and those living in long-term care facilities. Financial elder abuse sometimes involves threats. For example, family members who withhold needed care for an older relative or warn they’ll send that person to a nursing home unless they sign over financial assets are engaging in elder abuse.

Warning signs of financial elder abuse include rapid account drawdowns or other unusual financial behavior, as well as new close friends who seem to know a lot about an older adult's personal and financial life. Other signs include the opening of unknown accounts, increased account activity, and suspicious withdrawals. Moreover, recent and unknown changes to wills, mortgages, trusts, deeds, and property titles all provide warning signs.

All states have long-term care ombudsmen, whose job it is to advocate for residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Where to Find Help in Cases of Financial Elder Abuse

Resources for those who think they are being exploited include a service from the U.S. Administration on Aging called the Eldercare Locator, which can be reached online or by calling 800-677-1116. In addition, most states have some sort of adult protective services agency. The National Adult Protective Services Association website also puts older adults in touch with needed resources to counteract financial abuse.

All states have long-term care ombudsmen who advocate for residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Many have experience dealing with financial elder abuse. Individuals in these facilities can go to the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care to find an ombudsman.

In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has resource guides that can help older adults and those assisting them to avoid abuse. Finally, it’s not unheard of to simply call or go to a local police station and ask for help.