Estates & Wills & Trusts

Breaking bad: protecting elders from financial abuse

By Staff

Toronto wills and estates lawyer Patrick J. Aulis has witnessed first-hand the devastation of financial elder abuse but says seniors can take steps to protect themselves from becoming victims.

When a friend or relative takes financial advantage of an unsuspecting senior, events often follow a similar pattern, Aulis tells

“In many cases, the parent sells their home and is encouraged to move in with their child. He or she convinces the parent to grant them power of attorney (POA) for property — in theory, to look after the finances, but then the money starts to disappear,” he says.

Aulis says he worked with one client who alleges his son racked up tens of thousands of dollars on his credit cards, with the intention of never paying them.

“I advised him to go to the police, even though in my experience this can be very difficult to navigate because there’s a tension as to whether this is a civil or a criminal action,” he says.

Many times the authorities regard such situations as family disputes, Aulis points out, meaning they’re reluctant to start an investigation.

“What’s frustrating is that the best chance of my client getting his money back is if a criminal investigation proceeds. If the police don’t investigate, it’s a civil action, and as the lawyer, I have to spend time tracking the money down and convincing the person to give it back. Considering the victim's finances have been drained, how will they be able to pay for a lawyer to do this?” he says.

The Financial and Consumer Services Commission of New Brunswick says a recent study found that one-quarter of the people surveyed reported knowing a senior who has or may have been the victim of financial abuse, reports Global News.

Aulis expects those numbers will increase but says seniors can protect their assets in a number of ways. For starters, he advises clients to think about the character of the person they’re appointing to their POA for property — even if it is a relative.

“In my client’s case, he should never have granted the POA to his son. He had a criminal record and was known to be involved in dishonest practices. Trust is the foundation point of a power of attorney for property. The person you’re entrusting with your money must be honest and competent,” he says.

Parents often make the mistake of thinking it’s a popularity contest among children, but that kind of reasoning doesn’t serve them well, Aulis says.

“I’ve seen people appoint all of their children because they don’t want one to feel left out. But if you look at the children objectively, maybe two are upstanding and competent and the third one is the worst possible choice — why on earth would you appoint that person? Truthfully, rather than trying to be fair with decisions that are that important you should be careful to pick the attorney(s) who will best look after your interests,” he says.

Those who suspect someone is taking financial advantage of them should reach out for help — even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable — to stop the cycle of abuse from continuing, Aulis advises.

“The elderly can turn to advocacy centres, lawyers and the police for help. It’s important to go to people who can be trusted. Many people who suffer elder abuse don’t get help because they’re ashamed, and the problem continues to get worse. But I think you need to be vigilant,” he says.

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