Financial elder abuse is a massive problem in the United States, one that is finally getting the attention it deserves – and one that financial advisors can play a role in solving.
According to the National Council on Aging, elder financial abuse and fraud costs older Americans $36.6 billion per year. In 2016, the North American Securities Administrators Association released a rule that required financial advisors to report suspected abuse to state and other authorities. Since that time, Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana and Vermont have all enacted laws that followed or replicated NASAA’s rule. It’s predicted that this trend will continue in 2017.
Financial advisors can rise to the challenge of ensuring that their clients are properly cared for as they enter their later stages of life by incorporating some simple steps into their client engagement processes. The following are the top 10 actions and considerations for advisors regarding working with vulnerable investors and addressing the challenge of dementia or Alzheimer’s in the client-advisor relationship.
1. Power of attorney: As part of your standard client engagement process, either at account opening or at a later point, you should ask whether the customer has executed a power of attorney and whether it is limited (only effective when the person is not incapacitated) or durable (effective through incapacity).
2. Emergency contact: Ask whether the client would like to designate an emergency contact whom the firm could contact if it could not reach the client or if you have concerns about their whereabouts or health. It’s also important to check with the client periodically to ensure the information you have is still correct.
3. Ask for consent: Discuss having your client consider allowing you to notify that emergency contact if there is a concern related to diminished mental capacity or financial abuse by a third party. You should clearly disclose to the client the conditions under which the information would be used and let your client know that they have the right to withdraw consent at any time.
4. Legal documents: A person is not deemed incapacitated until a doctor declares it. Revisions or drafts of new legal arrangements should be written as soon as possible after a diagnosis to ensure the client still has the mental capacity to make sound decisions and can make their wishes known. Wishes of a non-legal nature, such as preferred living situation, can also be described at the same time.
5. Plan ahead: Seek to involve family members in financial discussions before any issues develop, but keep in mind that the decision to involve children or other family members ultimately rests with the client. This is particularly important when clients’ children live out of state.
6. Welcome family: If appropriate, ask if the client would like to invite a friend or family member to accompany them to appointments at the firm. The client may feel comfortable having someone who can help with notetaking or asking questions the client may not think of at the time.
7. Watch for signs: Asking relatives the right questions can help you detect and confirm signs that your client has dementia. Topics to broach with them should include forgetting the names of people who are close to the client, forgetting recent experiences, being unable to find important things, exhibiting unpredictable mood changes, and no longer showing interest in outside activities. These are all common signs of dementia and not of normal aging.
9. Detailed documentation: Send letters or notes that memorialize your meetings and provide details on discussions and actions agreed upon in those meetings.
10. Increase communication: Arrange to meet more frequently with clients who are considered to be vulnerable investors.
With more than half of Americans expected to develop dementia in their lifetimes, a proactive approach is the only approach, and it’s critical that advisors are part of the solution. By revising client engagement processes, advisors can not only better protect their clients against wrongful financial abuse, but they can also set a new standard for the advising profession as a whole.