As Australians live longer, a delay in wealth transfer from older people to their relatives is leading to these cases of ‘inheritance impatience’. The phenomenon is a driver of elder abuse, and is an increasing concern for wills and estates lawyers like myself.
Elder abuse is not rare
Beryl* was suffering from advanced dementia and was living in an aged care facility. Staff at the facility began noticing that Beryl’s daily care fees were not being paid on time. Several months passed and the fees stopped being paid altogether.
As she accumulated a significant debt, staff found they were not able to discuss the unpaid bills with Beryl due to her dementia. This led the facility to eventually apply for an Administration order so that her financial affairs could be investigated. An independent administrator was appointed for Beryl who investigated her financial affairs.
What we discovered is sadly emblematic of a larger problem happening in Australia today. Beryl’s son, who she’d appointed her Power of Attorney, had been spending her savings on himself instead of paying her bills.
Every day the son spent between $10 and $100 on his own groceries, petrol, and other household items directly from her account. Over about two years, he’d spent more than $100,000 while her bills stacked up.
How can you protect those at risk?
Sadly, we are seeing increasing instances of relatives who are unable to wait to inherit assets from elderly relatives – behaviour that is a small part of the population but a worrying trend for older Australians at risk of elder financial abuse.
When these cases are brought to us, the older people concerned are usually very scared about talking about what has happened or lack the capacity to understand the extent of the problem. In our experience, in so many of these cases, the abuse is perpetrated by a close family member or someone who has befriended the person, secured their trust and then taken advantage of that relationship and the older person’s vulnerability.
In many instances the older person is often entirely dependent on the person responsible for the abuse. They may be living with the abuser and be reliant on them for their basic needs, which means they have little power to call out abusive behaviour or do anything about it.
In our experience, it is often people such as doctors and nurses, bank tellers, social services workers or lawyers who sound the alarm on abusive behaviour. That is crucial as many older people in these situations are unable to speak out for themselves.
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, July 15, is a timely reminder for people to plan their estate wishes early and think carefully about essential roles, such as who will be appointed Power of Attorney.
Having an up-to-date Will and other key documents such as a Power of Attorney, a Statement of Wishes and an Advanced Care Directive is a crucial step to take in protecting your estate as you age.
*Beryl is not her real name