Financial abuse is one of the most prevalent forms of abuse in the UK amongst the elderly or vulnerable. Financial abuse often involves stealing money or possessions from a vulnerable individual for one’s own benefit. We have all heard of the situation where an attempt has been made to convince an elderly person to sign over their house to their housekeeper but the sad fact is that the abuser is most likely to be the victim’s daughter or son.
Financial abuse can take many forms. Abusers can be family members, friends, carer’s, neighbours and in fact anyone who has formed a relationship of trust with an individual, that they are later able to exploit to their benefit. An elderly person might be forced into signing a new Will under duress. A carer may threaten to harm an individual unless they spend their own money in the way that the carers wants. A continually reinforced threat to no longer visit an elderly relative in a care home, unless she pays your travel costs, could amount to exploitative and abusive behaviour. Pocketing the small amount of change you receive after you do your neighbour’s weekly food shop as opposed to returning the full change to her is also a form of financial abuse.
Financial abuse amongst the elderly population is something that we frequently encounter as Court of Protection lawyers and Elder Law specialists. Financial abuse is often accompanied by physical or psychological abuse. This includes threats, intimidation, ridicule or withholding affection. An abuser will often not leave the abused to have one-to-one contact with their old friends or family, insisting on being present at every meeting with other people. An abuser may seek to prevent access or contact with old friends and relatives, keeping the individual living in fear and intimidation. Once should be mindful of any changes in behaviour in a vulnerable individual or the arrival of a stranger who appears to be taking over financial matters without being able to produce proper legal authority for doing so.
It may in some circumstances be appropriate for you to talk to the vulnerable individual, if you can do so alone, to ascertain their views about what is going on. This might be difficult if someone lacks capacity and does not recall the abuse or if you are denied access . It is not always advisable to confront the abuser as this might impact negatively on the vulnerable adult.
In most cases external intervention is required. If you suspect abuse, it is important to contact social services in the first instance to alert them to a vulnerable adult at risk. Depending on the circumstances of the case you may need to consider making a safeguarding referral.
If there is financial abuse and there is reasonable evidence to support a suspicious transaction or unusual actives in a bank account, it is likely that an application to the Court of Protection will be required. If an abuser has gained access to a vulnerable individual’s bank account it is essential to act quickly before funds are dissipated. This might require an emergency application to the Court to freeze an asset. Applications to the Court of Protection, where the individual at risk lacks capacity, often culminate in an independent person being appoint to investigate the alleged abuse. An independent Deputy might be appointed to take over a vulnerable person’s affairs and protect the individual from exploitation going forward. Elder Abuse is a crime and an independent Deputy may, in addition to undertaking any financial investigations and tracing and recovery of stolen assets, refer the matter to the Police for investigation.
If you know of someone who might be being abused, it is important to collect some evidence and to seek advice. We can help you to discuss any matters arising out of these complex situations and provide you with the options available to help a vulnerable and exploited individual.