Law Review: Stop, Drop & Roll: Preparing for Financial Fire

by Margaret (Mia) Lorenz, Attorney

When I was very young, my mother would have fire drills at our house. I was one of four children. My mother would “pretend” tuck us all in bed, and then yell “Fire – Fire.” We had been told where to go in the house for exit, and upon hearing the panicked “Fire – Fire” we rushed to the second story window that exited over the garage to escape. We were prepared for fire with advanced planning and drills. We also had drilled into us that once we got out of the house, we should dial 911 for help. Unfortunately, seniors are not as prepared with an advance plan, and seniors do not always call 911. 

In my work, I see many instances of financial exploitation of seniors. Through my work, and through research, I have discovered that very often seniors do not have an awareness of financial abuse statistics, and that seniors do not “report” financial abuse either to the authorities or to their family. The failure to report the crime is especially true when a senior is the victim of a crime that involves theft by a trusted caregiver; theft by a family member; and/or theft by a criminal who duped the senior. You see, being the victim of a crime is a horrifying and traumatic experience on its own. If you throw into the mix, the fact that the senior victim fears losing their independence; fears that they will be “put in a home”; fears that their mind is failing and “this will prove that my abilities are diminished,” you have the perfect storm of emotions that cause a senior to NOT report the crime. As a result, senior financial abuse is one of the most under-reported crimes in America. 

People over 55 hold the majority of the nation’s wealth – and criminals know and prey on this. These criminals also know that as people age, financial skills are among the first skills to diminish – this includes impairment of insight as to whether something is a scam or legitimate offer. Moreover, the criminals know that seniors will be embarrassed and scared of judgment, and are therefore unlikely to report the crime; so, the criminals know that they will likely NOT be chased. Scams that target seniors are only increasing – because the seniors hold the wealth. How do you prevent being a victim of financial abuse? 

The first step is to understand that senior financial abuse is a widespread epidemic that deserves your attention and preparation. There are corporations in existence whose sole goal is to safeguard seniors’ assets from criminals who especially prey on them! There is specially-designed technology to prevent the abuse of a senior’s assets! This is a real threat and warrants discussion between you and your trusted friend or relative. 

Embedded in the first step is the reality that as a person ages, you maintain independence best by making sure you have a trusted person on your side and in the know. Shortly put: HAVE A PLAN to prevent the crime. 

The fact is that as we age, our bodies and/or mind will age too. No “fountain of youth” has been discovered. Needing the assistance of another, as we age, is a fact. In my opinion, and as a result of the work that I do, I believe that if a trusted person or persons are not identified by the senior, the senior stands a larger chance of becoming a victim of senior financial abuse, and NOT living the twilight years as the senior would choose. 

THE PLAN to avoid financial exploitation involves identifying a trusted person or persons who understand(s) the senior’s goals and objectives in life; understands the senior’s thoughts on nursing homes and the resources the senior has to enable their attainment of their goals until their passing. Do not wait to do this! A person can best evaluate and consider their trusted person’s capacities and motivations when one is most sharp. 

Once the senior has identified the person or persons they trust, disclosure and much conversation needs to occur. This can be difficult because many are very private. We are entitled to our privacy. However, when nobody is in the know and a senior becomes incapable of handling their own financial affairs because of sudden illness or accident, the result is publication of all assets at the courthouse. That’s right – when there is no person legally empowered to assist you, and you are deemed by the authorities as in need of assistance because of a temporary incapacity or more protracted incapacity – the court (the state) gets involved and all resources are disclosed in guardianship proceedings. And so, failing to disclose to a trusted person, can –and often does — result in the exact opposite of what the senior was hoping to avoid: publication of their resources and assets. 

Once a trusted person is identified and disclosure occurs, it is wise for the senior and the trusted person(s) to consult with the senior’s attorney on the senior’s goals and objectives. Basically, the attorney is trying to ensure that a trusted person(s) is/are equipped to monitor and assist the senior; and if an emergency occurs, the senior’s trusted person(s) is/are best equipped to help the senior. Also, the senior’s attorney can guide the senior on identifying the information that your trusted person will need. Some people are very organized, but some need help in getting information in an organized fashion for disclosure. Also, your attorney can discuss with the senior: when is it time to consider a power of attorney? How can my finances be monitored by my trusted individuals? How often should my trusted individual and I connect to ensure all is in order?

Increased awareness of the crime of senior financial abuse should result in more seniors and their families developing a plan – they should have fire drills! There are many resources available online (some of which are listed below) providing advice and good ideas on how seniors and their trusted person(s) can work together to prevent financial abuse. Seniors need to avoid being burned in the fire of financial exploitation. Have a plan! The threat is real and the consequences are dire.

Margaret (Mia) Lorenz is an attorney in Southern Pines at Lorenz and Creed Law Firm PLLC, where she helps people with many legal needs such as preparing their wills and/or trusts, helping when a loved one dies, and helping purchase or sell real estate. She has been assisting people with their legal needs for 26 years. In addition to her husband, John, to whom she has been married for 27 years, she has two children (Matthew and Nicole); three furry children (Brandy (basset beagle hound mix), Mickey and Minnie (cats); and is grandmother to two furry grandchildren (Clif the dog and Aurora, the cat).