Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Institute of Family Studies reported that between 2% and 14% of older Australians are likely to suffer financial abuse in any given year.1
Of those being abused, 72.5% are female.2 92% of perpetrators are related to the individual, and sadly, 66.8% of perpetrators are the victim’s child.3 Figures relating to 2020 and the impact of COVID-19 are still unknown, but are expected to rise due to the isolation of many of our older people during this time.
We all know that having appropriate arrangements in place, via a current and properly drafted enduring power of attorney and a will, can provide a safeguard against abuse. But this message does not appear to be reaching those most at risk.
Working as a solicitor at the coalface of elder abuse in Queensland has provided me with the opportunity to understand the people-centric aspects as to why financial abuse was perpetrated against each of my clients. We need to focus on their perspective and educate these citizens on ways to protect themselves, and of the implications if they do not.
The World Health Organisation has declared abuse of an older person is “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to the older person”.4
This is the story of one of my clients. In 2017, a woman in her mid-seventies decided she needed to update her will. Being a pensioner, she attended a local charity, who along with a local solicitor offered reduced-price wills.
During the discussion she mentioned difficulties in her family. Attending with her was her youngest son, who helped her in the months prior. Her husband had died a year or so before and her other two sons had reacted badly to the finalisation of the family business.
After the meeting, her son suggested she transfer the family home, her only remaining asset, into his name under the guise of preventing her other family members from receiving anything from her estate. He also convinced her to sign other documents, including an enduring power of attorney. She was unsure and had no idea of the implications.
Over the next month or so he convinced her of the benefits and, after another disagreement with her other children, she agreed. The property, worth a substantial amount of money, was transferred into his name on the basis she would live there until she died. Only a few months later his girlfriend, her adult children, dogs, and sometimes friends moved into the property.
She was told she could not use the laundry, her furniture was removed and placed in open sheds in a paddock, and she was told to stay in her room. Over the next 12 months those residing at the house became abusive towards her. Her remaining furniture was moved about the room, and pictures on the walls were swapped (at night, or when she was out of the house). When she questioned the changes, she was told that nothing had changed, all to convince her she was losing mental capacity.
Over time, the son became more aggressive, and the police were called. They saw the matter as a family disagreement. After several calls, even to a fire in the house, they told her they could not act.
She was lost. Her life was miserable. If not for some very good friends she would be sitting in a room completely isolated from the world, just waiting to die. The matter is currently on the road to the Supreme Court.
Monicka Baird is the Principal Lawyer at Monicka Baird & Co.
4 World Health Organisation, the Toronto Declaration on the Global Prevention of Elder Abuse (2002).