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How to Spot Signs of Caregiver Financial Abuse

And what an attorney can do to help in New York

The elderly widow in Queens might have been slowing down a bit, but she was still mostly self-sufficient. She lived alone in the longtime family home, which she kept clean and orderly. She made her own meals, and unfailingly went out once a week to get her hair done.

Her only child, a daughter, had a demanding job on the West Coast, but called every day to check in.

When the mother began getting more forgetful, the daughter set up a meeting with an elder law attorney, Ron Fatoullah of Ronald Fatoullah & Associates, during her next visit. He advised them to bring in the mother’s latest bank and investment statements, the deed to the house, her will, insurance policies with beneficiary information and other financial documents.

In preparing for the meeting, the daughter spotted an unfamiliar name on the deed. “Her mother had transferred the house to the woman who cut her hair,” Fatoullah says.

Some of the most common forms of elder financial abuse include having withdrawals made from their accounts, becoming the beneficiary on their insurance policies or the heir on their wills and occasionally—as in the case of the widow in Queens—taking over ownership of property. Lawyers say they have seen this behavior from anyone in regular contact with the elderly: home attendants, cleaners, cooks, drivers, doormen—and the occasional hairdresser.

However, by far the most common abuser, lawyers say, is a child trusted to take care of mom or dad. “The most typical scenario involves an immediate family member,” Fatoullah says.

Often, he says, it happens when one son or daughter is left behind to take care of the aging parent, sacrificing their own work and social lives. They feel resentful: Shouldn’t they be compensated? Shouldn’t they get more from the estate than siblings who aren’t taking care of mom or dad?

Isolation is a common sign of financial abuse, lawyers say. The caregiver discourages the elderly person from going out or seeing others, including clergy, longtime friends and relatives. When the older person does have visitors, the caregiver insists on being present and speaking for the older person.

Relatives should be concerned if the older person seems anxious or fearful around any one caregiver, and if they are becoming forgetful or disheveled in clothing or grooming.

Other red flags: missing valuables, irregular withdrawals, unpaid bills, changes in attorneys or financial advisers or power of attorney. Sometimes caregivers get themselves named to joint accounts or learn bank passwords, and once in a great while maneuver to marry the elderly person. “All of a sudden, you hear about a caretaker sitting on grandpa’s lap,” says elder law attorney Anthony Enea of Enea, Scanlan & Sirignano.

To spot the danger signs, relatives need to keep in touch. Ask for copies of statements, Enea urges. “Stay involved in mom and dad’s life,” he says.

If the signs are there, he adds, you should take action immediately. “Trying to remove the caregiver from the home and reporting them to their employer would be the first option,” Enea says. “Then investigating if any financial improprieties have occurred, you can always call the elder abuse division of the district’s attorney’s office. You can contact Adult Protective Services for advice and, if need be, seek an attorney to commence a guardianship proceeding and be appointed their legal guardian.”

In the case of the Queens widow, Fatoullah sent the hairdresser a letter saying that unless the case was resolved quickly, he would refer the matter to the district attorney for possible criminal charges.

The woman hastily agreed, Fatoullah adds: “We’re resolving that case without litigation.” The elderly mother’s name went back on the deed, and her West Coast daughter set up a system to track her mother’s expenses. She also helped her mom find a new hairdresser.

For more information on this area, see our overview of elder law.

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