Make a stand

An article in the West Australian’s financial pages a few days ago left me almost choking over my muesli. A financial adviser wrote on ways middle-aged children could protect ‘their’ inheritance. My elder-abuse-antenna shot up. Such an ageist, abusive idea!

The article  suggested that the children should set in place enduring powers of attorney for their elderly parents. When – not if, but when! – the younger people had to make plans to care for the seniors, they would have access to control over the parents’ finances.

There are a few problems with this advice.

The first is that everyone should arrange to give their enduring powers of attorney to someone they trust, in the same way everyone, not just old people, should make a will. Blank powers of attorney documents can be bought at most newsagents and Australia Post shops. Solicitors can also assist. The documents require the signature of the person donating the powers and those of two witnesses.

Enduring powers of attorney provide some legal protection against the possibility of financial abuse or exploitation following an accident, the onset of dementia or some other unfortunate event which might impair a person’s decision-making process. Who gets to look after your finances is not something that should be left to chance.

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The second problem with the advice in the newspaper is that older people should not allow anyone decide who will have these powers: it is their decision about their own future. Sons and daughters can suggest that mother or father puts powers of attorney in place, but the idea of the children attempting to put them in place suggests coercion, even potential abuse.

Statistics show the prevalence of financial abuse of older women and men that is actually reported in Australia. The statistics are probably the tip of a very large iceberg. And it seems that relatively few older people recognise that they, too, can be victims at the hands of those they should be able to trust.

Most older people understand that strangers can harm them financially and in other ways. But it is too shocking to think that our own sons and daughters, step-children, grandchildren, other relatives or friends would harm us, intentionally or unintentionally. No one likes to think something like that could happen to them!

Everyone, including old people, should obtain and maintain control of their own financial affairs. This applies even when a person is part of a couple. When one partner deals exclusively with shared financial matters and makes the decisions, the survivor can be left unable to manage for themselves should their partner become incapacitated or die. Decision-making can then be taken out of the hands of the survivor, sometimes with ill-effect.

I worry when I read articles such as the one in the newspaper. Misleading information such as that makes it easy to assume that adult children have some rights over their parent’s money or property; easy, too, for children to expect to be given access to their parents’ funds.