Elder abuse continues to increase at pace, most commonly because of a growing trend of families fighting over a living person’s wealth rather than waiting to dispute the will. And complicated family arrangements often make the the elder abuse worse as blended families and sibling rivalries negatively impact on vulnerable older people.
While parents are alive, but their capacity to make decisions is in dispute, control of their affairs, their money and who will make decisions for them are usually heard in state guardianship or administration tribunals if the family can’t settle the matter itself. When parents are dead, and the dispute is over a will, the matter is heard in the Supreme Court.
Take for example, the heir worth $10 million whose daughters instigated guardianship proceedings in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal with claims he had lost capacity to manage his affairs.
“He’s worth $10 million and he can’t even spend 10 cents without going cap in hand. It’s an abuse of human rights,” the man’s wife said. “My husband does not have dementia. He was an alcoholic and has short-term memory loss with not one negative medical report about capacity to run his life.”
The wife claims she and the man had known each other for 20 years but his decision to become sober at the end of 2012 led them to marry in a secret ceremony not attended by his adult children. A couple of months later they got a letter saying his daughters had instigated guardianship proceedings in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal with claims he was being unduly influenced by the woman he previously did not want to marry.
During hearings the two daughters told the tribunal the wife had taken advantage of their father’s dementia by socially isolating and emotionally abusing him.
“I was very worried that she was exerting a huge amount of influence over Dad and controlling his life,’’ one daughter said.
Through their lawyer the daughters said they missed their father and believed he was the victim of elder abuse for financial gain.
In ordering the Public Trustee and Adult Guardian take control of the man’s affairs, the tribunal found he was vulnerable and his wife had taken “significant advantage’’ of his declining capacity.The tribunal found the wife was taking advantage of her husband’s elderly condition and the man must ask for permission from the Public Trustee to use his money.
Adult Children The Most Likely Perpetrators of Elder Abuse
Parents are living longer. The 85-and-over age group is the fastest growing in Australia, and as our population lives longer, more have dementia. They are staying at home longer, dependent on family care for extended periods. There are more children from those big, post-war families to wrangle over decisions: who is the primary carer, who has financial control, who is mismanaging Mum’s money, who isn’t pulling their weight – and long-held grudges, rivalries and arguments rise to the surgace again.
And a parent’s death doesn’t end the fighting; the value of the parental home has increased so dramatically over the decades that more siblings consider it worthwhile going to court over the estate.
Sibling fights are typically, but not exclusively, about money. Some adult children see Mum’s money as their own even when she hasn’t died yet. It’s called inheritance impatience – an entitlement to the parent’s money.
A common example of inheritance impatience occurs when a parent sells her home and moves in with the adult child who offers to care for her until death. The parent transfers a large sum of money to the carer. It may disappear into elaborate home renovations, or into the adult child’s business ventures, or luxury cars, or travel.
Take the case of the daughter who accused her older sister, the father’s favourite and primary carer, of using the proceeds of the sale of their father’s house to buy a newsagency. There were suspicions of financial abuse and lack of proper care, but the father was deemed sufficiently competent to make his own decisions.
A 2011 study by Monash University, commissioned by State Trustees Victoria, cited a consensus among professionals that one quarter of families failed to take care of their older members “within an environment of mutual love and trust”.
The mean age of victims of financial mismanagement was 80, women were more likely than men to be abused, and the perpetrator was “most likely to be a son or daughter’’. The study, For Love Or Money (intergenerational management of older Victorians’ assets), said older people believed “when you have a family you do not need documents’’. But some adult children had an overwhelming sense of entitlement to their parents’ assets at a time when those assets were increasingly needed to fund long-term elder care.
Take the case of Victor, an 84-year-old with mild dementia and little English; father of five adult children, and husband to Loretta, who also suffers dementia. But when Victor was rushed to hospital after a fall, the unravelling began.
Loretta’s condition suddenly deteriorated and she was put into respite nursing care which became a permanent placement. It was over Victor that the fight between the siblings raged. After he was discharged from hospital, the siblings disagreed on whether he should join Loretta or live at home. At the nub of the dispute was “how best to honour their parents’ wishes to be together balanced with their parents’ health care needs”, according to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Two siblings, one with an enduring power of attorney to manage the father’s affairs, were adamant he should be with his wife, “as they had always been together’’, and he was too confused and ill to be cared for at home.
Three siblings challenged their brother’s power of attorney. They argued they had already set in place a 24-hour, seven-day a week roster for caring for their father, augmented with home care services. He’d looked after his wife for three years since the onset of her dementia, and he’d had enough, they said. He didn’t want to join Loretta in the nursing home.
A hearing room filled with the warring siblings, some of their spouses, their father and his interpreter, saw family life at its worst. One sibling claimed she had been verbally threatened by her siblings when she had visited her father. They weren’t looking after him properly and he had been put on anti-depressants, she said. Another sibling said he was being denied access to his father.
In this case, the decision was not so difficult for the tribunal. Though it was agreed Victor had dementia it was not so advanced as to rule out his having a say in his own life. Given the opportunity, he told the tribunal he wanted to stay at home. But the tribunal felt it necessary to appoint an independent guardian for a limited time to sort out the issue of the estranged siblings’ access to their father.
Elder Abuse by a Controlling Adult Child
In other cases, an older parent is taken advantage of by a child who moves back home or who has never left home, and has total control over the household.
Typically they are the no-hoper sibling who never left the parental home, or had to move back in. They enjoy free board and exercise tyrannical control over an intimidated parent, shutting out their brothers and sisters.
Alan, a father of two adult children, had lived with his 89-year-old mother in her house for 12 years. He had enduring power of attorney to manage her affairs. His sister, Sandra, challenged this authority, claiming their mother “would never have given Alan control over anything’’. She said he refused to pay rent or leave the house even after the mother was moved into a low-care nursing home and funds were needed to pay the $150,000 accommodation bond.
“He considers the house belongs to him,” Sandra said.
The guardianship tribunal found Alan was “unable to distinguish between his own interests and that of his mother’’. But it also found that in relation to the need to sell the house, Sandra was primarily motivated by “hostility towards her brother’’. It appointed an independent financial manager.
Accredited Specialist in Succession Law, Bryan Mitchell, says many of problems could be avoided if parents and siblings drew up a legal contract known as a Family Agreement. Such agreements would bring greater transparency to family care, making explicit the arrangements over parent-to-child loans, for example, or unspoken expectations about care. A specialist can also pick up on family dynamics and understand where elder abuse might be inflicted and by whom, and can manage issues of cognitive decline.
In every case, early intervention is key to preventing elder abuse and loss of assets. Contact us today for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.