Elder abuse is most commonly associated with physical and or emotional abuse. However, financial abuse of the elderly has become a growing concern. Financial abuse occurs when a relative, or someone close to an individual, takes significant advantage of their financial position. Christine Smyth, former president of the Queensland Law Society, alongside the Not Now, Not Ever report has recognised that “elder financial abuse is a form of domestic violence”. Like other forms of domestic violence, victims are often silent, reluctant or incapable of speaking up due to feelings of rejection, seclusion and loneliness. As a result, it is difficult to understand just how widespread this issue really is.
Approximately 10 percent of the elderly in Australia are suffering from some form of financial abuse, with over 60 percent of abuse being committed by the adult children of victims. The current pressures of owning a first home, the inflating property market, and a higher cost of living have arguably influenced the behaviour of many adult children. Adult children are increasingly growing impatient for their inheritance and can often feel a sense of entitlement. As a consequence, they use elder abuse to seek their ‘early inheritance’. The question is where do we draw the line?
Abuse can often begin with minor financial transgressions which can progressively develop. Such transgressions can include children wrongfully taking money from their parent’s bank accounts, misappropriation of property, improper use of an enduring power of attorney, and pressuring elderly parents to change their will under unfair circumstances, or when the elderly parent is under duress or medication. All of these can be classified as a form of financial elder abuse.
Though elder abuse is prevalent, it is not widely recognised or even understood in the community. It is rarely reported by victims, and therefore, difficult to quantify. Between 2013 and 2014, the Queensland Uniting Care Community estimated that its elderly citizens have lost approximately $56.7 million as a result of elder financial abuse. This figure is just a fraction of the abuse that has been committed within Queensland. It is assumed that this amount has, and will, astronomically increase over the years unless measures are put into place to address this financial abuse.
Greater steps need to be taken to combat this increasing national issue. The Australian Law Reform Commission and the Law Council of Australia have proposed that a national registration for enduring documentation be established and that a national plan be implemented to bring further awareness to the community. As legal professionals, we have a responsibility to raise awareness and prevent such abuses from occurring to our vulnerable elderly citizens. Simple steps such as letting victims know that they are not alone, and that they can seek assistance, can go a long way. Legal practitioners ultimately need to be more vigilant and take greater care when handling will and estate matters.
If you or someone you know has experienced any form of financial abuse, please contact Stephens & Tozer today. If you wish to take preventative measures to safeguard you or a loved one from financial elder abuse, our team are ready to assist you.
Melanie Kirupairajah is undertaking placement at Stephens & Tozer, gaining experience in a wide range of legal practice areas. Stephens & Tozer regularly advise their clients on how to protect their assets, and assist with preparing the documents to do so. If you require assistance, please contact our friendly team at Stephens & Tozer today.
19 December 2018