According to this article on CNBC, “Roughly half the population over 80 suffers from significant cognitive impairment — problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment. That includes one in five who have dementia.”

This cognitive decline can have very serious consequences on many levels. “Elderly investors regularly harm their finances, or their families, through ill-considered decisions they wouldn’t have made 10 or 15 years earlier.” This can include decisions both large and small. The article points out that “some seniors panic after market plunges and hastily withdraw money from the stock market, locking in losses. Others buy low-quality, high-commission annuities or other investment products with high risks and fees.” But more worrisome than a declining ability to make investment decisions is a decline in judgment which can lead to seniors becoming common targets for scam artists.

An article in the Wall Street Journal describes one family’s fight to prevent their aging relative from bankrupting himself after he sent check after check in response to phone and mail scams. It began small, with the elderly family member innocently responding to a mail order offer for “investment secrets.” However, “in less than a year, this Ivy League-educated professional sent at least $23,000 to slick con artists who came to know his personal interests, as well as his bank-account, credit-card and other personal information.” Eventually “he was falling behind on his bills, his phone was cut off, and his condo association was clamoring for its fees — all signs, it turns out, that he may have been co-opted by con artists.”

This is a frightening prospect for children of aging parents. Luckily, there are ways to protect a loved one from scammers; protections from con artists and creditors can be built into trusts and estate plans, or in extreme situations a trusted family member can be given power of attorney over bank accounts and financial matters. What follows is a list of some non-invasive, non-offensive steps adult children can take to help aging parents avoid fraud and protect their assets:

* Sign up phone numbers on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry.

* Gather scam mail in one envelope and place it in your mailbox with the note “Forward to Postal Inspector—suspected mail fraud.”

* Ask for a list of important people and information you might need in case of emergency. This list would include contact information for an attorney, financial advisor, primary care physician, and insurance agent.

* Ask where your parent keeps important documents and how an executor or advisor could access those documents upon your parent’s death or incapacity.

* If your parent is willing, discuss their estate plan with them, including who they have chosen as their agent or executor, and what you can do if something happens.

* Ask your parent to make a list of monthly bills, expenses and account numbers. Although your parent may not want to hand over this information right away, the list should be stored with other important estate planning documents so that it can be accessed in case of emergency.

* As you keep track of your own financial deadlines (tax filing deadlines and the like) set up reminders for your parent as well.

* Ask that your parent list you as an “emergency contact” with their utility services, this means that you would be informed if your parent’s service is in danger of being terminated.

* And finally, talk to your parent as often as you can. Keeping open lines of communication is the very best way to stay informed about the abilities and well-being of your aging parent.

If you think that your parent may need more serious protection than the suggestions above, please contact our office immediately. The longer you wait, the more your loved one stands to lose.

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