Date posted: 14/07/2023 5 min read

Signs of financial abuse of older people

Accountants can become aware of the financial abuse of older people during the course of their work. Here are some signs to watch for.

In Brief

  • Elder abuse is widespread in Australia and New Zealand, and one form it can take is financial abuse.
  • Accountants may discover that someone is selling an elderly client’s assets or pressuring them into personal loans.
  • If you suspect an older person is experiencing financial abuse: don’t delay. Recommend calling a helpline and getting legal advice because it is difficult to reclaim assets once they are sold on.

By Jessica Mudditt

Accountants and financial advisers can often become aware of the financial abuse of older people in the course of their work with individual clients or with family businesses. Family members and others may be siphoning off money from bank accounts, selling assets or pressuring older people into personal loan agreements.

Elder abuse is widespread, says Rebecca O’Toole, practice leader for the estate litigation team at Shine Lawyers.

“A common scenario is when someone doesn’t want to be put into a nursing home,” she says. “A family member offers to care for them in the elderly person’s home, provided ownership is transferred to them. Once they get the house, they back out and put them in a nursing home. That’s when they come to us. It's terrible.”

The perpetrator is often a child, grandchild or, in the absence of those, a neighbour.

Signs of financial abuse of older people

Here are some of the signs of financial elder abuse, and what you should do if you know or suspect someone is being victimised.

  • A change in banking habits. If you have a client who has always done their banking in person but has switched to online banking and has someone else doing it for them, this could be a red flag.
  • A change in power of attorney. The perpetrator may obtain power of attorney to facilitate the abuse. If you meet the power of attorney, keep an eye out for comments that concern you.
  • Large gifts of cash or a transfer of property. “The main reason why people come to us for help is after a transfer of property or a substantial amount of cash has been given,” says O’Toole. Sometimes multiple gifts are given to different people. When it’s out of character, it should raise alarm bells.
  • “The main reason why people come to us for help is after a transfer of property or a substantial amount of cash has been given.”
    Rebecca O’Toole, Shine Lawyers
  • A client no longer has enough money to afford basic living expenses. There might be subtle signs, such as a throwaway comment about not using the heating or cooling in their house anymore, as a way to save money. There could also be signs of malnourishment due to the older person not having enough food in the cupboards.

What to do if you suspect financial elder abuse

1. Gather evidence. “You need to be cautious in making any accusations, so get as much information as you can to substantiate what you think might be happening,” says O’Toole.

2. Support your client. “It will depend on the nature of your relationship with them, but having a conversation in private about your concerns will help you to be fully informed before trying to intervene,” she says.

It is a difficult and sensitive topic to broach. Start from a point of concern by mentioning the changes you have noticed. Tell your client that they can discuss any worries they may have with you.

“Many elderly people want to maintain their independence and it is difficult for them to show their vulnerability or to admit that someone is taking advantage of them,” says O’Toole. “Try not to be confrontational and just offer your support. You don’t want to add to the pressure they’re probably already under.”

3. Recommend legal advice. If your client tells you that they are being victimised, advise them to call a helpline and see a lawyer. Encourage them not to delay in doing so.

“When someone is taking advantage of an elderly person financially, they usually start small to see what they can get away with. It will usually escalate, unless someone intervenes. If you notice something, try your best to help them to prevent it getting worse,” O’Toole says.

“Once a property is sold or transferred to a third party, it is much harder to get the property back or get some compensation. You need to act quickly.”

Elder abuse helplines

1800 ELDERHelp: 1800 353 374

New Zealand
0800 EA NOT OK: 0800 32 668 65
Age Concern: 0800 65 2 105