Safeguarding your family’s wealth in the face of illness

Unfortunately, there are many cases of untrustworthy relatives trying to secure money that is not rightfully theirs from sick or elderly relatives. Whilst some of these cases end up in court with a fair outcome, the majority of them seem to go completely unnoticed by others and sadly the vindictive parties end up coming out on top.

Here we can take a look at what you and your loved ones can do to protect your family’s wealth if the worse should happen.

The issue of misplaced trust

The cases that reach the courts are a miserable insight into how misplaced that trust can be.

Last month a man from Swindon was convicted of using a power of attorney to empty his demented father’s bank accounts in 17 months. Paul Keen, a gambler, stole more than £80,000, cashing in his father’s ISAs and spending his pension. He cheated his brother of £33,000, and his sons of £5,000 each. He was jailed for just over two years.

In 2015 a teaching assistant from Rochdale was convicted of taking more than £120,000 from her elderly mother. Gaynor Casey spent the money on a kitchen, a conservatory, football tickets and foreign holidays, rather than on care home fees. When her mother died the arrears came to £24,000, money which Casey could not pay back. Her nephew lost his £80,000 inheritance. Casey claimed that her mother would have given her the money anyway as “she was a generous lady”. The judge said it must be clear that the penalty for untrustworthiness was always a custodial one, and jailed her for a year.

Many murky cases of abuse are never investigated at all

That may be the judge’s hope but the vast majority of misused POAs never go to the criminal courts, because the issues are too grey or require too much evidence. In 2015, for instance, an entrepreneur with a mother in her 90s appeared before the Court of Protection. She had gone into care and he had taken all of her £300,000 in assets, selling her house and raiding bank accounts.

Judge Lush, who ruled in that case, removed the man’s attorneyship and railed against him for having broken every rule in the book, for not having put his mother’s welfare first and for “blithely” leaving Surrey taxpayers to pay her bills. Her son was unrepentant. He argued that as sole heir he was entitled to the money, to meet his “life’s requirements”. He said all he had done was to take his inheritance early.

There was no criminal sanction because the Court of Protection’s role is to rule on an attorney’s suitability, not charge them, while the police are often reluctant to take these cases up, seeing them only as private family theft.

Elder abuse

Many murky cases are never investigated at all. The website of the charity Action on Elder Abuse is full of anxious queries from people who fear family members with a POA are looting a vulnerable person’s resources. Most involve confused relatives, who are being intimidated into giving money away, or are miserably confined to a small room in their own home while other relations live rent-free in it. That or they are being neglected by a son or daughter who won’t put them into the care home they need because they intend at all costs to hang on to the family house.

Adult safeguarding

The advice is always to contact adult safeguarding teams, but it is clear that often the elderly relation is too frightened or muddled to co-operate, or desperately wants to maintain existing relationships with their carer.

A disillusioned former police officer on the site says that in his experience forces don’t have the will or resources to pursue any but the most obvious cases. And it’s easy to see where temptation lies. The reasoning might easily move from thinking that after a tiresome day with an elderly parent, they can pay for a beer, to “I need a night out, so why not spend more? They’ll never know.” As holders of POAs don’t have to file any records, proof is difficult to find.

This is a pressing issue. Most of us will live to over 80, and one in six of that group will develop dementia. Lush says that rather than a POA, people should apply for a deputy to run their affairs. Deputies must keep detailed records and reasons for spending, take out insurance against misbehaviour and are supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian, to whom they send annual reports.

The problem is that supervision and record-keeping are onerous and costly. Deputies must pay several hundred pounds a year. Nor does the law currently allow them to be chosen before a person loses their mind; they are only appointed by a court once that’s gone. That rule needs to change. Lush’s warning confronts us with a sad reality: families are not synonymous with duty or love. Temptation without supervision is more than some people can bear. If we hold any private doubts, we need either to pay out, or leave our future selves at risk.

If you would like advice on how to safeguard vulnerable people in your family we can help to put you in touch with organisations in your area. Get get in contact with us via our contact page.