As part of Diane's remote author interview series, she had the chance to speak with Ann Patchett in January over video Zoom as a live audience watched. Here's that conversation.
Guest Host: Elise Labott
Millions of elderly Americans suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other disabilities that make them unable to make decisions about their finances. About a quarter of all people over the age of 65 rely on relatives, often their children, for help managing their money and assets. But the task of caring for elderly parents and managing their bills and property can be overwhelming and time consuming. It can also be filled with ethical and legal pitfalls and a source of family conflict. Join us for a discussion about the best ways to manage an elderly relative’s money.
- Sally Hurme Project adviser, education and outreach at AARP.
- Naomi Karp Senior policy analyst, Office for Older Americans, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
- Elizabeth Loewy Chief, Elder Abuse Unit, Special Victims/Special Prosecutions Bureau, New York County District Attorney's Office.
MS. ELISE LABOTTThanks for joining us. I'm Elise Labott of CNN sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out having a voice treatment. Millions of elderly Americans are unable to manage their finances because of cognitive disabilities like dementia or other health issues. Often, relatives, especially the children of elderly parents end up handling the finances.
MS. ELISE LABOTTWith me in the studio to talk about the legal and ethical pitfalls of managing an elderly relative's finances, Naomi Karp with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Sally Hurme with the AARP and Elizabeth Loewy, a prosecutor with the district attorney's office in New York. I'm sure a lot of you are grappling with this issue. I know I am. We want to hear from you.
MS. ELISE LABOTTWe'll be taking your comments, questions, throughout the hour. Call us on 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thanks, everyone, for joining me.
MS. NAOMI KARPThank you.
LABOTTSally, let's get to you. This is a very sensitive issue. I know I'm dealing with this with my mom and my grandma about this whole idea of the role reversal and how you talk to your parent about maybe that it's time to talk about helping them with their finances. What are the signs that it's time to have this conversation and how do you do it in a way that preserves their dignity?
MS. SALLY HURMEWell, some of the signs are people, your parents, having difficulty just making sure that their bills are paid. They may be getting a lot of telemarketing calls that may be questionable about what they're doing. They just may be confused about what their finances are. Those are the signs. But then, how to react or what to do proactively to make sure that they're not being taken advantage of, that they're not being exploited in any way, it's really hard.
MS. SALLY HURMEThere's no easy answer. Basically, I would say the first thing to do is to establish just a good line of communication. The conversation is going to be easier to do before there is a crisis.
LABOTTYeah, you want to have a plan in place before there is an emergency and then you, you know, you don't have anything in place.
HURMERight. 'Cause one of the ways to make sure that the problem doesn't get ugly or difficult or into a crisis situation is to talk to your parents now about how you have prepared a financial power of attorney and encourage them to think about what they want, who they want to be helping them with their finances when they can't.
HURMEAnd the sooner that you have that conversation, probably the easier that conversation is going to be.
LABOTTNow, we're talking about millions of baby boomers, Naomi, who are now managing their parents finances and it's a lot to take on.
KARPIt is a lot to take on. And it's going to vary a lot from one case to another how complex it is. So, for example, let's say you're handling your mom's money, her finances are not very complicated. She gets a Social Security check, maybe a pension and you need to help make sure that her monthly bills for basic needs are paid. It's still hard because it's a big responsibility and it has great consequences for someone else.
KARPBut in that case, it might be fairly simple to come up with the routines, the Bill Pay and so forth. On the other hand, perhaps you're handling your dad's money. He may have real estate. He may still be an owner of a business, but...
LABOTTIt could become a full time job.
KARPIt could be and perhaps you've seen your dad still thinks he's in control, but as Sally talked about the warning signs, sometimes even family members don't really realize because people can have mild cognitive impairment, but yet they're losing the judgment and the ability and, all of a sudden, they're making crazy investments or going for scams.
KARPAnd sometimes those can be the first red flags and then you really have to act fast.
LABOTTOkay, Liz, you've had the discussion with your mom or dad and we've all agreed that it's time for them to get a little help. And if you find yourself having to take care of your elderly parent or relative's finances, what's the first thing you need to do and what are the kind of documents you need to line up?
MS. ELIZABETH LOEWYWell, it's a great question and I want to just reiterate what Sally just said, which is that you want to have this conversation while they're still competent, while they have capacity. You don't want to wait until it's too late or you'll have problems from the outset. The other thing I'd like say is that you understand -- although you may think of yourself as taking care of your parents and there's, you mentioned a role reversal, they're still your parents.
MS. ELIZABETH LOEWYThey still have dignity, even with their aging issues and so you have to realize that your parents' money, that's not your money. But it's important to have a family meeting at a time when your parent or parents have capacity and to figure out what's going to happen in case things don't work out well, in case there's some aging issues, whether it's physical or cognitive and find out, you know, first get them to agree and do so in a way which affords them their dignity.
MS. ELIZABETH LOEWYAnd then, sit down and find out things like where they bank, what their Social Security numbers are, lots of kids don't know what their parents' Social Security numbers are. You should have them on hand. The kinds of accounts they have, whether they're bank or investments accounts, what kind of insurance policies they have. You'd also want to find out something, if you don't know already, about who beneficiaries are in the will.
MS. ELIZABETH LOEWYAnd I want to stress that's what you get after your parents pass away, not before, and if your parents are retired, then learn where their income comes from, whether it's Social Security income, whether it's pension income, get their important contacts together, like perhaps they have a stock broker or an attorney or a mortgage company, have that conversation, get all of that information on the table and figure out, as Sally and Naomi mentioned, do you want to make someone power of attorney.
MS. ELIZABETH LOEWYWill it be one of the kids? Will it be two of the kids? Will there be checks and balances?
LABOTTA lot of people sometimes, Sally, think, oh, the eldest child should do it.
HURMEOh, but that may not necessarily be the most best choice. You really need to think about what the skill sets are and you want to pick the person, which may not even be a child, who has the ability to understand what their fiduciary duty is. If they're having a hard time managing their own checking account, that's probably not the child or the person that you want to select as the person that is going to be managing your money.
HURMESo age order is not the criteria that people should use. It should be who can you really trust, who do you think has those sort of math skills to be able to make good and sound financial decisions on your behalf.
KARPYeah. I just wanted to add a couple of things. Obviously, one of the other challenges here is that you want to keep peace and good relationships within the family. So, so often, we see siblings who really end up getting into conflicts over issues involving their parents and parent care.
LABOTTOver what's best for them.
KARPOver what's best for them. So that's very sensitive. So sometimes in families, we see they can assign different roles to different children depending on their strengths. For example, in my husband's family, his sister is a nurse practitioner. She handles a lot of the health issues. His brother lives in town so handles the things that the person close by can handle.
KARPMy husband's the money guy so he handles the finances and they all communicate and that kind of communication and sharing of information is very important. In fact, when you create a power of attorney, you may even want to build into it the notion that you share that information, that you come up with an accounting of what you're doing and you share it with someone else.
KARPAnd that's an extra check and balance that you, even if you're totally honest and you understand your responsibility, it's another set of eyes to make sure everything's going well.
LABOTTNow, what else do you think needs to have to be in the power of attorney?
KARPWell, that's a very individual question. And generally, when people are creating a power of attorney, they probably should seek legal advice because, first of all, every state has its own laws on powers of attorney. It's generally not something where you want to go on the internet and just pull off a form because its written in legalese. There are lots of different authorities that you can delegate or not.
KARPYou might have to make decisions about things like, do you want your agent under power of attorney to be able to make gifts on your behalf? Do you want them to be able change beneficiaries of your insurance policies? Those are all complicated things and so some good legal advice is always helpful.
LABOTTAnd I want to note that on our website at WAMU.org, we have a lot of great guides for you to walk through this process from the consumer financial protection bureau. So Naomi, thanks very much for getting those to us. Now, Liz, what happens if, you know, your parent has advanced Alzheimer's and there's no power of attorney and they're not competent to be able to sign that over to you?
LOEWYWell, what you might want to consider doing is moving for guardianship. And guardianship, essentially, is when a court appoints an individual as a legal guardian. In our case, it would be a senior who is deemed to lack capacity and that's when there's no advanced planning and no POA. And I imagine there's been no family meeting and agreement about what should happen.
LOEWYAnd by the way, one of the big issues that I see is whether that agent, even if it is a family member, should be paid or not. That's something that should be discussed as well because when it's not discussed, then sometimes, you know, the Manhattan DA's office will get that case. But guard...
LABOTTIs it common for people to be paid?
LOEWYYou know, it's sometimes not unreasonable, as we've all agreed. It can be almost a full-time job. But the important thing is to talk about it beforehand so that we don't get those misunderstandings later.
LABOTTLiz Loewy is the chief of the elder abuse unit of the special victims bureau at the New York district attorney's office. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, more on managing your elderly parents' finances. Stay with us.
LABOTTWelcome back. I'm Elise Labott, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the challenges of managing elderly relatives' finances. With me in the studios is Naomi Karp. She's a senior policy analyst at the Office for Older Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Sally Hurme is project adviser of the Education and Outreach at the American Association of Retired Persons. And Liz Loewy is the chief of the elder abuse unit of the Special Victims Bureau at the New York County District Attorney's Office.
LABOTTNow, I want to get to some of these emails because there's already a lot of interest and we have a lot of emails and callers. How -- one email from anonymous, "How do you approach a parent about their finances who is not quite elderly? My mother has multiple sclerosis, which is complicated by her alcoholism. I'm not confident that she's responsibly managing her money, but she's only in her early 50s and doesn't believe she is impaired in her judgment."
LABOTT"What can I do to make this an easier conversation to have? Are there measures I can take that are short of taking control of her finances?" Naomi?
KARPWell, I would say that's definitely a tricky situation. But it's certainly true that much of what we're talking about in the context of elderly people with dementia, a lot of those concepts are true for younger people who have disabilities or challenges and can't handle their money. So, for example, someone who has a degenerative disease like multiple sclerosis may have some limitations in their ability to get around and handle things.
KARPAlcoholism on top of that would certainly be a challenge. I think you're certainly going to want to use your best people skills and perhaps even get some advice from a clinician about the best way to approach someone who is going to have a lot of resistance. A family meeting might certainly be a way to do that if this individual has siblings. This individual is going to know her own mother the best.
KARPAnd so she'll know what resonates best. But, you know, if it does get to a crisis, you might need to bring in a mental health professional. You might need to bring in an attorney who's skilled in handling these. You might even want to do some family mediation. And if the situation gets so out of hand that this person is concerned that the money will be spent or stolen by a third party, you know, that could be the time too that you might have to think about filing for guardianship.
KARPEven though we always want to do these things in a cooperative and friendly and family way, when the situation gets bad enough, sometimes dire measures are needed.
LABOTTActually we have another email to that point from Carol saying, "Something to be avoided at all cost is having a court-appointed fiduciary or guardian who may not even be a family member or friend oversee yours or your loved ones affairs. This industry is poorly regulated and subject to abuse. The GAO has issued a report on financial exploitation and abuse by guardians. Please consider who might be best to manage your affairs and leave clear instructions, perhaps with several alternatives." Sally?
HURMEYes, indeed. Guardianship is something that is a last resort when all of the other opportunities have been tried to make sure that the person is receiving the best kind of assistance that they need. But guardianship is the last resort. And it is what is the fallback when there hasn't been the planning and when things have gotten out of control.
HURMEOf course guardianship should not be instituted just because you don't like how your parents might be spending their money because there -- to get into a guardianship, there must be a documented and proven disability that impairs their medical -- their ability to manage their affairs.
KARPYeah. I just wanted to add the -- our emailer did flag the issue that sometimes guardian -- court-appointed guardians can be bad actors and can end up exploiting the person. And this is certainly something that we've seen. I know Liz, in her caseload, has had cases like that. So it is a problem. To put it in perspective, it's probably a very small minority. There are, oftentimes, when there is no appropriate family member to act.
KARPAnd so, we do have a cadre of professional guardians who are trained. We even have a certification process in many states. So it's not always bad, but we have had to pay a lot of attention to how do we monitor those court-appointed guardians and make sure that they're not the ones stealing from the till. Sometimes guardianship can stop the bleeding by a family member. But in other cases, the guardian is the bad actor. So it's kind of two sides of a coin.
LABOTTWhat do you think, Liz?
LOEWYWell, there are bad actors out there. And interestingly, we've investigated and prosecuted guardians. But we've investigated more family members and relatives and prosecuted more of those than we have guardians. But, you know, bad actors are in every group. We've prosecuted folks in the financial services industry as well. The important thing is to be watching your money, watching it with your parents if your parents need it, if your parents agree and have some advanced plan in place.
LOEWYAnd one more note on guardianship just for the folks out there who don't know about it. It can be limited. So court can limit an elderly guardianship to certain areas, say, if a senior needs help with finances but not with physical help. Most of the courts will try to really tailor the guardianship to the elderly person's needs.
LABOTTI want to go to Brian from Alexandria, VA who has some experience with guardianships. Hi, Brian.
BRIANGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
LABOTTThanks for calling.
BRIANYeah, this topic hits close to home because it was just in the last year that we -- my family had to go to court to get a guardian and conservator for my father. The issue started several years ago as my father's mental health declined. And we had talked for years to ask him what, you know, of anything we can do to help or how can we help. And answer was always everything's fine, everything is fine.
BRIANThere was -- the discussion was there was no discussion about it. But then things finally -- both his wife's health and his health really declined and we tried to step in to help but his wife, her attitude was absolutely not and blocked anything and everything we tried to do. And we'd tried to do a patchwork of help for over a year and couldn't do that. She would obstruct or block anything that we tried, wasn't getting the proper help.
BRIANAnd my father was being neglected and exploited in his own home. So we did -- literally a year ago, last February, we met with an attorney and filed the papers for a guardianship and conservatorship. I had tried. I had done -- I was going to step in and do it if I could but his wife was like absolutely not. She wanted one of her friends to do it. And I said that -- it was very questionable with that person.
BRIANSo we got an attorney in the area. It was one that was recommended by our attorney. And, you know, our case went through and everybody that looked at my father's condition agreed with all the observations I had made. So there was no question that he needed to have a guardian and conservator.
LABOTTHow's it working? How's it working now?
BRIANWell, it worked out. Even when -- my father in June had to have an emergency respite here, he was removed from the home. And so there was no -- we tried to get help for about a month. We tried to get proper help in the house, get his care where he gets to stay in place, age in place was our goal. But his wife made intolerably impossible. And so, he was -- they literally went in. And we -- last summer, we shopped around for care facilities.
BRIANAnd we picked a place near us here in Alexandria. And my father was, not forcibly, he went out for an afternoon and unbeknownst to his wife and we moved him into a senior care facility. So he's doing really well now. The guardian and conservator handles everything. I haven't, as his son, really haven't -- I know somewhat about his finances and things. There was a lot of paperwork involved with that in the whole leading up to the court proceeding. But in our case, the guardianship has been a godsend. I mean...
LABOTTThanks so much for calling in, Brian. Naomi, this must be a very common issue where members of the family don't agree. Maybe the spouse doesn't want the children to takeover. But the children don't feel necessarily the spouse has their parent's best interest at heart.
KARPWe do unfortunately hear these stories a lot. It sounds in this case, like, perhaps it was a second marriage. And I've heard that scenario a lot too where there's a second marriage and then there's friction between the older parent's current spouse who's not the parent of the children and that can become a very difficult situation. Of course, we always hope that you could get some intervention before that, whether it'd be through family therapy or mediation or something to avoid this.
KARPBut this does sound like a situation where it was unavoidable and where having a third party professional probably was the way to go. But in light of that, I did want to mention although sometimes these third party professionals, whether it'd be an attorney or a social worker are paid guardians, in a vast majority of cases, it is family members, lay people who are serving as them.
KARPAnd, Elise, you mentioned earlier the guides that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau put out. They are guides for fiduciaries, guardians, agents under powers of attorney, government fiduciaries and so forth. And so for those family guardians who have a heavy responsibility, they are not only agents of the individual but agents of the court. They really know how to -- need to know how to carry out those duties.
KARPAnd our guide is plain language. It's free. It will walk that new guardian through their duties. It will tell them to how to protect the person against financial exploitation and it will give them other resources on where to go for help. So if you go to consumerfinance.gov, our website, you can find the guide on there. It's free to download and especially if you're just taking on these responsibilities, that's the perfect time to read these guides.
LABOTTI read them in preparing for the show and found them very helpful. Sally, let's talk about some of the other options that are available if you're going to help a relative take care of their finances, like a living trust, for instance.
HURMEA living trust is one of those other legal documents, legal tools that can be appropriate in certain circumstances. With a trust, basically what you're doing is transferring the ownership of specific property into a trust and you name a trustee to be the person responsible for managing that asset. One of the interesting concepts behind trust is that it is a tool that can be used when the grantor or the person creating the trust no longer has the ability to manage their assets.
HURMEBut it also serves as a way to distribute your resources after your death. So it's kind of like a will. But a will is only for the distribution of and management of your property after your death. A trust can be used to manage your property both during your incapacity or whenever it's just more than you can manage as well you can name beneficiaries of your trust for after your death.
HURMEBut trusts are very complicated instruments. Not everybody needs a trust. At AARP, we're somewhat concerned that there are a lot of sort of trust kits or that are one size fit all document that really are more important for the purveyor of the trust. So we -- it's -- a trust can be one of those documents that is part of your estate planning and it is a legal mechanism by which you can set up in advance a way for your more complicated assets to be managed.
HURMEIf you don't have a lot of resources, you know, it's just basically a house and some minor investments, there probably is not a financial reason to go into trust.
LABOTTSally Hurme is project adviser or education and outreach at the American Association of Retired Persons. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Naomi, how do you find out if your mom or dad is eligible for any type of employer or government benefits like Medicare or Medicaid?
KARPThat's a good question because that is an important part of helping your parent manage their money, and especially if you're doing so in a fiduciary role, like an agent under power of attorney or a guardian. You really do want to maximize their income and the things that they're eligible for. And there are a lot of public benefits out there. So there are a couple of sources for finding out about that.
KARPThe National Council on Aging, which is a nonprofit organization that works on aging issues has developed something called a benefits checkup. And you can access that online at www.benefitscheckup.org and it will put you through a series of questions and it will help flag what benefits your parent might not yet be receiving but might be eligible for. You know, it could be anything from low income heating assistance to get them through the winter months to, you know, perhaps they're eligible for food stamps or some other benefits that you wouldn't have even realized.
KARPSo it's good to do that. Another great resource is your local area agency on aging. Every community has them and they are aware of all of the resources in the community, including the public agencies that can help you with this. To find your local area agency on aging, you can go to something called the Elder Care Locator, which is at www.eldercare.gov and you just put in your zip code or the town or city that you live in and it will tell you everything from your area agency on aging to your local legal services program, to a lot of other aging resources.
KARPSo for anyone helping to manage money, both of those will be a great resource.
LABOTTWell, we have some emails asking about what happens if your parent doesn't have resources or even has debt. Here's an email from Gail, "What do you do if a parent has credit card debt not paid off? Am I responsible? Mom is in a nursing home, but still has $1,800 on her bank card. All of her money now goes to her nursing home. Advice please." Sally?
HURMEIf you are not on that credit card, you are not responsible to pay that debt. And we do know that sometimes the credit card companies or debt collectors do try to go after spouses or children to collect debts for people who may be behind in their payments.
LABOTTEven if you're a trustee you're not responsible?
HURMETrustee is a different kind of relationship. But if you are -- if we don't have a legal relationship and a legal responsibility to pay those bills, you don't have to. If you are an agent with a power of attorney, you then are responsible, not personally, but to negotiate or work with the credit card company or the debt collector on coming up with a way to pay those bills. It may be necessary to declare bankruptcy. But you are not personally responsible.
LABOTTWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, your calls, your questions on managing your elderly parent's finances. Stay with us.
LABOTTAnd welcome back. I'm Elise Labott of CNN sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about managing your elderly relative's finances. I'm joined by Naomi Karp of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Sally Hurme of AARP and Liz Loewy of the New York County district attorney's offices. We still want to hear from you. Call us with your comments or questions at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. We're on Facebook and Twitter.
LABOTTAnd we have a lot of emails right now. Let me ask you, Sally, what's recommended for single, divorced, widowed, never married older women or men who have no children, Carol asks, or the children are not trustworthy? Often friends and distant relatives are unwilling and incapable of helping and guardianship is an abysmal thought for those who are single.
HURMEYes. Indeed, that is a significant problem in who -- when you don't have an obviously family person to help you manage your money, you really need to dig deep as to who you can trust. It might be a neighbor. It might be a professional. There are daily money managers who may be -- you pay a small fee and they would assist you in making sure that your bills are paid. There may be someone through your church or another organization that you belong to where you have a friend that could be an appropriate person to assist you with your finances when it gets somewhat overwhelming.
HURMEYou obviously need to pick that person with great care. It needs to be someone that you can trust. Both of my colleagues here are going to be saying, there's that newfound friend who is coming in to help that individual who is the last person in the world who should be chosen.
LABOTTWell, Liz, you know, a common scenario here is that one person in the family is doing all of the work and then feels a little bit more entitled when, you know, unfortunately, the parent dies or even while they're living. Talk a little bit about how financial abuse by the person that's actually doing the managing of the finances is common.
LOEWYWell, it is sad, but true. But I think often we, in Manhattan DA, do see cases where say there's a child, as you say, an adult child that's helping with finances and it's a lot of work as we've all said. And so perhaps the older person is relatively isolated, except for that one person that they're relying on and they don't want to end up in a nursing home and they know that if they even has some insight to the fact that either they're going to need help or they do need help and that adult child is doing some good work and the typical scenario is they then, you know, are perhaps taking care of the bills, but feel a little bit entitled to pay themselves or feel a little entitled to take something from the home or take a look at what's in a safe deposit box.
LOEWYAnd there's a big misunderstanding out there about whether that's criminal or not, if it's your child or your relative. And that the point is no state in their larceny statute excuses a child, even a child taking care of their parent's finances and helping manage money, there's no statute that says if you're a family member you can't be investigated and prosecuted for theft if you take money without permission.
LABOTTWell, Naomi, what about, I'm managing my parents' finances and a lot of the things I'm doing are for their benefit, for instance? I need to drive them to doctor's appointments or I need to go out and go food shopping so maybe we need a car in the family and my mother doesn't have one, for instance. Is that an issue of unintentional misuse of the power that you have, the power of attorney?
KARPYes. I think we very frequently see people who don't have criminal intent, they're not out to steal. They're trying to do the right thing, but they just don't really know where the lines are. And, again, that's one of the reasons we put out these guides to tell people in very simple term what their duties are and where the lines are. So, for example, the example you raised is a very good one and we talk about it in the guides.
KARPIs it a conflict of interest? There are many things -- so you have a duty of loyalty to put that person first. It's not your money. It's their money and you have to handle it carefully. But where are the gray areas? So you gave the care example, and we do, too. You buy a car with mom's money. Perhaps once a month you drive her to a doctor's appointment, but for the rest of the time, you use it for your own purpose.
KARPThat may very well be a conflict of interest because you're putting your own interests in front of your mom's. Another example might be your mom lives in a house or an apartment. She needs some work done on it. Your son happens to be a pretty good handyman so you hire your son to do the work and pay him out of your mom's money. Well, maybe he did a good job, but maybe you should've shopped around and found someone else who would give you a better price or...
LABOTTJust to play devil's advocate, though, if you're spending all of this time and you want to make it easier on yourself and you have someone that you can just readily get the job done, I mean, are you -- is it reasonable that someone would want to just sacrifice a few dollars to make it easier on yourself if you're committing so much time and energy?
KARPI think that's really a tough one. And it may very well be that, you know, given everything, this person you know who's your son or your neighbor is fine and you can hire them. So we're not saying in black and white, oh, that's a conflict of interest, never do it. But the test is really are you putting someone else's interests ahead of your parents' and...
LABOTTI'm sorry. That's why it's really important to have that conversation before you become impaired. Not everyone does, but in case you become impaired.
HURMEAnd keep good records, I would assume.
LOEWYKeep records, understand what your parents' charitable contributions are yearly, what kinds of gifts they make because if they're gifting to you regularly, annually, and all of sudden that gift increases radically once they've been diagnosed with dementia, you could have a problem.
LABOTTAll right. Let's take some of your calls. We're going to go to Alice who's in Castroville, Texas. Hi, Alice. Are you with us?
ALICEYes, I am.
LABOTTGreat. Thanks for calling in. What's your question?
ALICEWell, I had a comment. I took care of my dad for the last -- his finances for the last five years of his life. He passed away when he was 94 in 2012 and I'm in Texas and he was in Indiana and so there was quite a bit of space. And I and my family, we would travel back periodically to visit and to spend time with him, but it made it really difficult in terms of -- he had a number of conditions in the last few years of his life.
ALICEBut the one that was most debilitating, at least in terms of taking care of the finances was macular degeneration. So he couldn't see and it became very difficult for him to be able to, you know, write the checks and do his taxes and peruse his bills, things like that. And so what we ended up doing was setting up -- he had accounts everywhere. Just drove me crazy when I started to try and put it out.
LABOTTI can imagine.
ALICEHe had little bits of money in this account and that account. And what we did is we consolidated it all into one account and then I got online access and so, I mean, he had online access, too, but he never really used it. But that way, I was able to really be able to help out and see what was going on, literally, on an hourly basis, if I needed to. So we had all the alerts sent so that I could see them if something needed to be paid on a credit card or it was over the balance or, you know, just anything at all.
ALICEBeing able to have that online view into...
LABOTTAll right. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Alice. Naomi.
KARPYes. I think that's a great example of how today's technology can, in some ways, be really the friend of these family financial caregivers. I know in my family, we're taking advantage of that, too. The same thing, people have lots of bank accounts. It can be a really good idea to consolidate them into one. Makes it easier for you to keep track and to keep records.
KARPAnd just doing that online banking bridges that distance problem, which we have so often now that the children are scattered across the country. We want to be able to keep mom and dad in the community where they're comfortable, where they may still have friends, where they have their doctors and so forth. And doing that online banking can really be a big help and it can also be a way -- let's say you have two siblings and one person's managing the money.
KARPYou could give view only access to another child and that person can also see to make sure things are going well and that nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
LABOTTSally, what about setting up a joint bank account so I can help manage and it's easier for me if I'm not in state or something like that.
HURMEThere are pros and cons to joint bank accounts. I think it's important to understand that there are -- the ramifications of when you add someone, let's say, a child to your bank account. If it is joint with right of survivorship, you basically are making a gift of all the assets within that bank account. You may want to do that, but you may not want to do that. And you may not be aware of what's happening when you do that.
HURMEBecause if they're joint with right of survivorship, they have full access to all of the money in that account and also it's part of your estate planning when you do a joint ownership of an asset. So let's say, for example, you may have a will in which you say I want to divide all of my property equally among my three children, but you put one of those children as a joint owner on a bank account.
HURMEThat bank account goes to that child and is not part of the pot that's divided by your will. There's another kind of bank account that I think people need to be more aware of and that's a convenience account or an agency account. And with the agency account, you have the ability to write checks, but you don't have ownership of those funds. And an agency account is probably more safe for your circumstances unless you really do want to have your kid have all of your -- access to all of the money in your bank account.
HURMEOkay. I want to take another call. Let's go to Kathy in Cuyahoga Fall, Ohio. Kathy, are you with us?
KATHYYes, I am.
LABOTTThanks for calling in.
LABOTTWhat's your question?
KATHYMy question involves an elderly widowed aunt who is 85 years old and she lives in a hoarding circumstance. My brothers and I tried to clean out her home. Unfortunately, a friend's son has befriended himself and now she has not trusted us because he accused us of stealing. The nitty-gritty is, at this point, she only trusts him and she is giving him money. She is giving him property. She has removed us from the HIPAA list so we can no longer communicate with her doctor.
KATHYWe've been told by the agencies involved with the elderly agencies that there's not much we can do until the doctor declares her incompetent, but we can't communicate with the doctor. So I was wondering, at this point, what we can do to help her?
LABOTTAll right. Thanks so much for sharing your story. And I think, Liz, that, you know, scams involving the elderly and elderly abuse, obviously there's a whole division at your office on it, is quite common. And I want to read another email. "My 89-year-old grandmother does not suffer from dementia and is able to care for herself quite well. I help her with her finances, but she's been the victim of a scam and just this week became a victim again. I learned quite by chance she nearly wired money to scammer."
LABOTTWhat are the red flags here and what can you do to protect you loved one and what do you if they are the victim of a scam?
LOEWYWow. So many questions in one. First, to the female caller, you know, my apologies to you. We do see a lot of situations where someone insinuates himself or herself with the elder and is not taking good care. I mean, you say there's hoarding going on and you, as a family member, want to do right. And it's a very difficult situation.
LOEWYIt's really all about mental capacity. We have the rights as adults to, you know, do what we might all agree are stupid things with our money, but if you have mental capacity, you can do that. And so I understand that someone is advising her. Until there's incapacity, there won't be much you can do. As far as scams go, they're rampant. D.A. Vance, who is my DA, we prosecute 800 cases in Manhattan a year.
LOEWYOver half of those cases involve -- and that's elder abuse cases, some form of elder financial exploitation and every day we see a new scam going on, whether it's a sweetheart scam or a scam involving the lottery that's really derived out of a boiler room in Jamaica or Nigeria or a telephone scams or, you know, mortgage-type fraud and they're very, very difficult.
LOEWYThe important thing is to report them and we can sometimes get phone numbers changed and get the police involved and set up -- help set up accounts for the senior so perhaps they have limited access to money that can be used to pay the scammers. Those are some of things we do in those cases.
LABOTTAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Naomi.
KARPYeah. I just wanted to go back to the caller's question. Although it may seem that the person has capacity, sometimes they are beginning to have some mild cognitive impairment and their capacity is not really what, perhaps, their family doctor thinks it is, so...
LABOTTAnd that's when they're probably really vulnerable to be taken advantage of.
KARPExactly. And we know that their ability to handle finances is the first kind of capacity that declines. We know that 22 percent of the population, age 70 and over, have this mild cognitive impairment so that's happening a lot. So in that case, it may be that there is something that can be done. This new best friend may be exerting undue influence over this person and they're not really exercising their free will.
KARPSo if they think that person is financially taking advantage, they may want to report it to their state adult protective services agency. That is the frontline agency that investigates and then can provide services for people who are covered. The other is, obviously, to report it to their local law enforcement because there could be some criminal activity going on.
KARPThe one other thing I wanted to say in terms of those red flags, those scams, sometimes you're asked very commonly -- you've won a million dollars, but you need to pay $4,000, $6,000, $10,000 up front in fees and taxes and then you'll get your money. And you can't believe how many people fall for that. So never pay upfront for a promised prize. It's always a red flag.
LABOTTAnd Sally, I think the whole thing in all of this is you want to make sure that you're involving your parent in the decision and helping them retain some control of your life while protecting them at the same time.
HURMECommunication, communication, communication within the family, with your parent, is so important to try to avoid the problem. Transparency in what everyone is doing is the light that's going to stop scams and eliminate or hopefully decrease the family dysfunction that can happen.
LABOTTSally Hurme is project advisor of the education and outreach at AARP, Naomi Karp, senior policy analyst at the office for elder Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Liz Loewy is the chief of the elder abuse unit of the special victims bureau at the New York Country district attorney's office. I want to thank you all for joining me. I'm Elise Labott sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening everybody.
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