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Protect yourself and your loved ones from financial abuse

California has some strong criminal and civil laws regarding elder abuse. The laws cover conduct from physical and financial abuse to conduct that results in physical harm or mental suffering. A criminal conviction can result in a fine or up to four years in prison, depending on the circumstances.

A civil action will not send the abusive caregiver -- too often a relative -- to jail, but the court can order restitution, punitive damages and attorney's fees. If a care facility is involved, the employer may also be liable. And, the estate can take over if the victim dies before the lawsuit is resolved.

The problem is that these laws help the victim after the fact. What we have found with financial abuse in particular is that the best offense is a good defense. There are ways to protect yourself or a loved one from someone you thought you could trust.

For example, consider limiting a power of attorney to one or two responsibilities -- paying mortgage and utilities, for example, or managing health care expenses. Some expenses can be paid directly from a bank account to the creditor at no charge. As one expert said, don't give away the keys to the kingdom.

Another option: Appoint someone to audit your accounts, to check bank statements for unusual activity. Someone who writes a lot of checks to himself will have to explain himself. If an accountant or a tax attorney is the auditor, he or she will have a higher duty to act in the senior's best interest, and that includes reporting any suspected abuse to the appropriate authorities.

For people with living trusts, an easy safeguard is to appoint two trustees. Again, it's important to choose those trustees carefully. If the senior's first choice is his oldest child, then an attorney or an accountant, even a bank may make a better co-trustee than another relative.

Some professionals suggest spreading the word to other family members and friends, or members of the same church, that your or your love one's finances are being managed by the agent. That way, the community can keep an eye out for signs of abuse.

What those signs are, however, is a discussion for another day.

Source: Consumer Reports Magazine, "Protecting Mom & Dad's money - What to do when you suspect financial abuse," January 2013

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