Beware the Family Caregiverby Paul Mawn on 08/22/19
We have all heard sad stories in the media about predators targeting the elderly. Often these stories involve phony investment scams, reverse mortgage scams, or lottery scams. Sometimes we hear about a sinister nurse’s aide who steals an elder’s identity and cleans out the elder’s bank accounts. In almost all of these media accounts, the con-artist is an outsider who comes into the elder’s life, wins their trust and steals their assets. Yet, you may be surprised to learn that most financial exploitation of the elderly is not done by opportunistic strangers, but by close family members.
When family members exploit the elderly, the culprit is often the family caregiver—the family member who lives with the elder providing care, companionship and assistance. This person usually has the motive, means and opportunity.
The motives can be tricky to pin down, and can be related to family dynamics that go back decades. Yet, for larcenous family caregivers, one of the strongest motives is usually a sense of entitlement related to the sacrifices inherent in the caregiver role. When one family member is doing the bulk of the caregiving for an elderly loved one, it is only natural that they can feel overwhelmed and resentful of other family members who are not contributing as much. Most caregivers have the strength of character to deal with these difficult feelings in a constructive way. Yet, some caregivers allow these feelings to fester, which can lead to, among other things, a sense of entitlement. Often this sense of entitlement will drive the morally weak caregiver to justify a decision to financially exploit their loved one.
When you are dealing with a morally weak caregiver, the bad news is that the opportunity to pull off a heist is inherent in the caregiving role. Usually the caregiver lives with the elderly victim, who becomes more and more dependent upon them as time goes by. As the elderly victim becomes more and more reliant upon them, the dishonest caregiver will enjoy more opportunities to increase the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on the elder to give them control of their assets. Some of their standard textbook plays are to get themselves named survivor on the bank accounts and the deed to the house, and to convince the elder to execute a power of attorney that enables them to move assets from the elder’s accounts to their personal accounts.
The good news is that most family caregivers are honest, caring people who truly are making a great sacrifice to honor their loved ones and to assist the family as a whole. In these situations, I would advise all other family members to make sure that they thank them, show appropriate appreciation and offer to help out whenever they can. Living by this Golden Rule is not only the right thing to do, but it also has the practical benefit of dampening any resentment that may be brewing inside the caregiver—resentment that could blossom into financial exploitation.
If you have any concerns about a caregiver in your family, you should talk to a qualified elder law attorney, who will be able to help you with both preventative and remedial measures.
Preventative measures keep the theft from happening in the first place—kind of like investing in a good security system for your home. Such measures can include drafting instruments that name the elder’s most trustworthy and suitable family member or friend to make medical decisions for them and/or to handle their finances in the event that they ever need assistance. Preventative measures are most effective when a qualified elder law attorney works with an elder who is still relatively independent, and mentally sharp.
Remedial measures are taken when some damage is already done—kind of like calling ServPro after the basement flooded. Such remedial measures could include a strongly worded letter from the attorney to the to the culpable family caregiver; a petition to the Probate Court to have a more responsible family member appointed conservator; a complaint filed with the Department of Social Services Elder Abuse Unit; and, if necessary, a complaint with the local police. With remedial measures, I always counsel restraint at first. One can always escalate the remedial measures if necessary, but one cannot always heal the divisions that more extreme measures (like calling the police) can cause within the family.
For many people, their family is their most prized asset—a wonderful gift that keeps giving. Most people have such high regard for their family that they do not want to think about the possibility of a family member doing them wrong. Yet, sometimes, a little bit of wise planning might be needed to protect the family from itself.