Using Professional Fiduciary Services in the Age of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed nearly every facet of senior living for both providers and for prospective residents. Providers are seeking ways to keep current and new residents safe while family members are extremely hesitant about moving their loved ones into these residences. Now, more than ever before, families are looking towards aging in place as a viable alternative.

Aging in place is now become the choice

The question then becomes, how do we keep our aging parents safe in their homes especially given the fact that family members are scattered about the country.

Melissa, whose mother was active but had some cognitive issues, didn’t see assisted living as a choice for her given the concerns about the virus, but she had concerns with her living at home as well.

“She was a high school science teacher for decades, with a penchant for facts and figures, but now as she ages, that sharpness is no longer there,” said Melissa. “I don’t want her in a senior living residence right now but I live hundreds of miles away and am afraid she will be victimized by scams. In fact, it has happened already which is why I have this concern.”

Melissa went on to tell us about her mother getting a call from someone stating that they were from the social security administration and that her card was being used for fraudulent purposes in Texas and wanted her number so they could “put a hold on it.”

“I was notified by the bank about three months after these scammers go ahold of mom’s information that something as wrong with her account,” Melissa said. “Sadly, by the time they notified me, she was already missing over $18,000. I’m now managing her money from three states away which is not good for her or for me.”

In another case, Joan showed up at the office looking frazzled and exhausted. As she sat down, the words began to pour out of her, showing her level of frustration with the financial problems her mother was experiencing.

“Today, I found out from the bank that my Mom gave out her checking account number to some phone solicitor who is now taking almost a hundred dollars a month for some facial products. Last month it was pillows, the month before it was a charity I have never heard of…this is driving me insane,” she said with exacerbation. Joan explained that her father died in 2015, leaving her mother, who had worked as a nurse at a local hospital before retiring, to manage the house and finances on her own.

Forgetfulness comes with age

“I thought everything was going fine. I spoke to her daily, she seemed upbeat and often complained that I called her too much and that I should concentrate on my own husband and children instead. She said that if she needed anything, she would let me know and that I should stop worrying.” But as Joan explained, things took a drastic turn.

“I received a call from the emergency room telling me that my mother was there suffering from dehydration and that her COPD was flaring up,” Joan said. “When I got to the hospital, Mom told me that her power was shut off and she didn’t know why. It was a hot week and she had no air conditioning, but she never called to tell me. When I went to the house, the heat was stifling, and I found months of electric bills, cable bills, and insurance premium invoices stuffed into a drawer in the kitchen. It was shocking how things had changed so quickly.”

“Since then I’ve spent more time at her house making sure everything is paid, monitoring her bank accounts, calling about lost credit or ATM cards, making sure things have been deposited, I can go on and on. I actually spend more time there after work on her financial issues than I do on my own family’s expenses.”

Stories like this are becoming more and more common as adult children across the country find themselves taking care of their parent’s finances because aging has affected their ability to manage household expenses.

“The sad thing is”, according to Joan, “she is able to live independently but just can’t stay on top of the everyday issues of paying bills or monitoring her own money. And given the scams that seem to pop up on the news every day, I’m afraid she could be wiped out financially before I would even find out about it!”

Financial Exploitation on the Increase

But it’s not just scammers who defraud our seniors. According to the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), seniors who were exploited by family, friends and scammers suffered an average loss of $34,200, and with this group growing in numbers and the fears of moving them into senior living residences due to fears of the virus, this number is expected to rise exponentially.

Losses increased with age

The CFPB says that this exploitation takes many forms, from the son who has a drug, alcohol or gambling problem to the caregiver who helps with the finances and writes large checks for his or herself without anyone providing oversite. Outside analysts looking at elder fraud estimate that losses average between $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion dollars annually. When it comes to age, the older the victim is, the more money is involved, according to the CFPM. Here are the numbers:

  • Those aged 50-59 suffered an average loss of $13,400

  • People ages 60-69, the average loss was $22,700

  • People ages 70 to 79, lost an average of $45,300

  • Those over 80, an average loss of $39,200

In just over half of these cases, strangers were responsible for the exploitation but in over a third of the cases, the victims knew the thieves, either a fiduciary or a family member. And when we say fiduciary, it’s important to know this does not mean professional fiduciaries.

“A fiduciary is anyone named to manage someone’s assets for their benefit,” said Attorney RJ Connelly III. “It may be a guardian, a family member, a trustee, or a person with a power of attorney. Without oversite, this is a problem that will continue to grow.”

A professional fiduciary, on the other hand, is a person who manages an estate or trust as their occupation.  It is their profession.  They are free of the emotional entanglements of family members.  They are experts in their field, know what they can manage and what they should delegate, and have education, training, experience, and licensing in most cases. Many are attorneys or financial advisors. 

And here’s another concerning finding, financial institutions do not usually report suspicious financial activity to the authorities. In a bog on the CFPM website, they note:

“While financial institutions are increasingly filing elder financial exploitation Suspicious activity reports (SARs), they often do not indicate that they reported the suspicious activity directly to first responders. Fewer than one-third of elder financial exploitation SARs specify that the financial institution reported the activity to adult protective services, law enforcement, or other authorities. If the financial institution is not reporting to these authorities, this is a missed opportunity to strengthen prevention and response.

When Addiction is Involved

As a retired addictions clinician, I have witnessed many cases where an elderly parent had fallen victim to a son or daughter with an addiction who used their money to fuel their habit. One family that I dealt with was particularly disturbing in terms of both financial exploitation and physical abuse.

Addiction of a loved one can result in theft

The son was 42 years old when he was arrested by the police for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. When police investigated the residence, they found his 82-year-old mother freezing with no heat or food in their home in a rather pricey area here in New England. His mother was taken to the hospital after police called paramedics to check on her condition.

According to the report, the police found the first floor of the house littered with clothing, trash, crack pipes, and empty bottles of prescribed narcotics. The thermostat was broken, lights were burnt out and not replaced, the refrigerator had rotten food, Animal feces from a pit bull was found in some of the rooms. The man’s mother told police that she gave her money to her son to buy food and fix the heat but it was not done. She also stated that the phone worked but he would control the handset.

Because she had suffered a stroke some years before, she was confined to a wheelchair and dependent upon him for everything from food to healthcare. According to the police report, the temperature in the house at the time of the check was 42 degrees. The mother told the police that she pleaded with her son for heat and air conditioning in the summer but he threatened to burn down the house with her in it if she told anyone. The report also stated that he was made her financial power of attorney following her stroke.

Daily Money Managers

So given the current climate and the increasing costs of nursing home and assisted living care, keeping those who can live independently in their homes makes sense from a social and economic standpoint but how do you keep them safe from those who would exploit them financially? Enter the professional fiduciary and daily money management services, called by many the most important job you never heard of.

Studies show that daily money managers help seniors remain home longer and avoid costly out of home expenses. Money managers ensure that bills are paid on time, checks are deposited, taxes are paid, checkbooks are kept balanced and insurance payments are kept current. These services can help seniors avoid eviction, loss of medical coverage, foreclosure, utility shutoff, and other credit problems. This service also helps to relieve the burden on caregivers, as in Joan’s case.

Daily money managers also help protect seniors from scams and other financial fraud and abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that this service has been instrumental in saving many seniors from the loss of savings and other assets. Money managers review bank and credit card statements are aware of what to look for in cases of fraud – such as large withdrawals, checks written to multiple charities or other groups for large amounts and frequent withdrawals from ATMs or other charges.

Daily Money Managers keep seniors home longer

Daily money managers also provide services to groups other than the elderly. Other clients who can benefit from daily money management include those with physical issues such as those with poor eyesight, arthritis, or Parkinson’s disease. Those with issues such as attention deficit disorder who have difficulty organizing their affairs also benefit from these services. Money managers also help busy professionals who either don’t have the time or the desire to deal with their finances because of extensive travel and packed schedules.

“Daily money managers provide multiple services to clients”, said Attorney Connelly, whose offices provide these services as part of an overall professional fiduciary department in his firm.

“What is important to know is that daily money managers are not CPAs or accountants, attorneys, licensed investment advisors, stock or security brokers, insurance agents, or medical or social service professionals. However, they work in collaboration with these professionals in order to achieve the desired goal for the client.”

But, not just anyone should be put in charge of a senior’s finances. Increasingly, families are hiring outside help to assist with an elder parent or a loved one with special needs because a friend recommended them and having no knowledge of their background. Sometimes this ends up with disastrous results.

Below are just some of the cases that have emerged here in Southern New England:

  • In New Britain, Connecticut, a city woman was accused of bilking an elderly home care companion client of $35,000, which was used to buy cars, an apartment, plane tickets, and a variety of goods, police said. Amber Foster, 26, was charged with first-degree larceny, identify theft and credit card theft.

  • Westport, CT police arrested a home health care aid who was accused of stealing $12,000 from an elderly client. Fantasia Best, 30, of Stratford, worked for the elderly victim from October 2015 to April 2016 and used the victim’s ATM card to withdraw money for herself several times, according to police.

  • In Fairfield, CT a home health aide was arrested after police say she stole from the elderly clients for whom she was supposed to be providing care. A video was used as a key piece of evidence, showing a woman who police identify as Kris Marsan rummaging through a drawer. She allegedly searched until she found an envelope and removed the money inside, the cash visible in her hand as she left the house. It's just one of two cases the 47-year-old aide has been charged in, and there could be more.

  • In Weymouth, Massachusetts police arrested a woman who allegedly stole over $15,000 from an elderly woman. Authorities said that 88-year-old Josephine Lally was slowly and systematically stolen from by her caregiver, Theresa Jenson, for about a year and a half. Lally’s daughter, and overseer of her financial accounts, contacted the police after she noticed several peculiar withdrawals from her mother’s account.

  • In Bellingham, Massachusetts, a home health aide was charged with stealing thousands of dollars from an elderly couple she was working with. Police said Stephanie Crosman, 49, of Sharon, wrote herself checks and used various debit and credit cards to make unauthorized purchases and cash withdrawals totaling more than $12,000. Court documents reveal she also had a case in Dedham District Court in which she was accused of using the credit card of an elderly Dedham woman to make $16,000 in unauthorized purchases.

  • In Fall River, Massachusetts a 61-year-old city woman was convicted of stealing over $120,000 from an elderly woman she was hired to care for and was sentenced to house arrest. Kathleen King was a companion and part-time caregiver for the woman. The victim, now 97 years old, is blind, deaf, and largely mute. Due to her age and disabilities, she was unavailable for any potential trial. Since King had no income aside from a small monthly federal welfare check, she was ordered to pay just $1,800 in restitution.

  • In Newport, Rhode Island, a woman who worked as a nursing assistant for two local companies was charged with stealing more than $500 from an elderly Middletown woman.

  • In Warwick, Rhode Island, police charged a Cumberland woman and Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) with stealing about $7,000 worth of jewelry from an elderly woman she cared for who was suffering from dementia. In the course of the investigation, detectives discovered the CNA, Eunice Xavier, 42, of Cumberland, had sold the missing jewelry to a pawnbroker, according to the Warwick Police Department. They also learned that Xavier had sold about 80 items to pawnbrokers since 2007.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, agencies who hire people to assist with the elderly run background checks on their employees, but these checks are not foolproof. There are a variety of ways in which some of the information can be hidden from employers. Reference checks may turn out to be fake as the candidate’s acquaintances act as past employers and give good feedback about the candidate. Financial data can also be forged, and a candidate might have engaged in criminal activities even though there are no past criminal records.

“This service is certainly needed in our aging society”, said Attorney Connelly, “but as with all things, clients must be aware that some people who claim to be money managers may be out to take a senior’s money rather than manage it. Unfortunately, because this is a relatively new field, there is no government oversight of daily money managers.”

Money managers can help avoid conflicts of interest

“When hiring someone to provide money management services, doing your own due diligence is imperative in picking a quality daily money manager or financial or law firm that provides these services for yourself or a loved one. I also encourage family members that hire home healthcare agencies to have the loved one's money handled by another party to avoid any conflicts,” said Connelly.

According to American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a good place to find trusted money managing professionally is by contacting the American Association of Daily Money Managers (AADMM), the national organization that sets standards of practice for its 700 members who are required to abide by a strict Code of Ethics, in accordance with all state and federal laws, and adhere to their principles which can be found on their website.

It is AADMM’s mission to support daily money management services in an ethical manner, to provide information and education to its members and the public, and to continue to develop a network of dedicated professionals. Connelly Law Offices is a proud member in good standing with the American Association of Daily Money Managers.

As Attorney Connelly explained, “It is our goal at Connelly Law Offices to provide those who engage in our services with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their loved one’s finances will be managed effectively and responsibly by a caring group of fiduciary professionals who work with seniors and those with special needs on a daily basis.”

On this week's Southcoast Seniors Radio Show, heard live every Thursday from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm on WPRV am790 in Providence, New Bedford, and Connecticut, we will be discussing more on Daily Money Management. On last week's show, the staff of Connelly Law provided an overview of the professional fiduciary services offered by the firm. This week, we will look closer at Daily Money Management. We invite everyone to listen live this Thursday.

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