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The power to stop elder financial abuse


While most of these agreements are exercised properly, as the population ages an increasing number of attorneys are taking advantage of a vulnerable friend or family member.”


Australia’s population is ageing. And a bigger pool of ageing Australians potentially means more people who are less able to make important financial decisions.


In Australia, the number of people aged 65 and over increased by more than 700,000 between the 2016 census and the 2021 census, taking the total number of people in the age group to 4.4 million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The number of people needing care also increased by almost 50 per cent in those five years to 963,048.


Many people in this age group grant a Power of Attorney (POA) to a friend or family member to assist them in making decisions about their finances and care. While most of these agreements are exercised properly, an increasing number of attorneys are taking advantage of a vulnerable friend or family member in that ageing population.


A Power of Attorney is a legal document which gives one person (the Attorney) the power to act for another (the Principal) in some circumstances. The document sets out what decisions can and cannot be made on behalf of the Principal.


The most common type is an Enduring Power of Attorney which continues to be effective when the Principal loses “capacity” to make their own decisions. Enduring POAs usually grant certain rights over their loved one’s finances and assets. While this can be reassuring, it can be risky in the wrong hands.


Attorney Obligations


The Compass website, an initiative of Elder Abuse Action Australia, states: “In general, the law says that someone appointed as an attorney must:


  • keep the person’s money and property separate from their own
  • maintain the person’s financial records
  • act with honesty, care and diligence
  • avoid conflicts of interest


I recently spoke at the Tasmania Law Society’s Elder and Succession Law Conference about the rise in financial abuse by Attorneys. While many Attorneys are unclear about their obligations and may unintentionally breach their obligations, others deliberately take advantage of their loved ones.


Nearly 15 per cent of older Australians have reported experiencing elder abuse with about 2 per cent experiencing financial abuse, according to the recent National Elder Abuse Prevalence Study.


Children are the largest perpetrator group for financial abuse (33 per cent) and there has been a significant increase in calls to elder abuse helplines about Attorney abuse in Victoria and Queensland, the study found.


Taking Advantage


When an Attorney financially abuses the Principal, they usually transfer money (sometimes large sums) from the Principal’s account into the Attorney’s or another family member’s account. These large transactions are particularly harmful when they transfer the majority of the Principal’s savings.


Attorneys can often declare the large transaction as a gift. While such gifts are sometimes allowable, they must be similar in nature to the Principal’s previous behaviour and be reasonable given their current financial circumstances.


Attorneys may claim the funds are to purchase property in another family member’s name for the Principal to reside. However, the transaction must be for the benefit of the Principal.


In other cases the Attorney may transfer smaller amounts into their own account for their own use while declaring it’s for the Principal’s everyday expenses. These small amounts can go unnoticed for months, even years, depleting the loved one’s savings.


Tips when choosing to set up a POA


  • Choose someone you really trust who knows your values, what matters to you and will make decisions with your best interests at heart
  • Consider all alternatives. A Power of Attorney is wide-ranging and there may be other options to suit your needs (Third Party Signatory, Joint Accounts, Letter of Authority)
  • If you want to set up the POA to have special conditions (joint attorneys or ability to make gifts), seek your own independent legal advice about special conditions and your requirements and talk to your bank ahead of time about how this could work.


In ANZ’s Customer Advocate Office we regularly receive concerns about potential Attorney financial abuse. Many of these situations are heartbreaking, including some where parents have unknowingly bought a property for their children, paid an acquaintance’s debt, funded their child’s gambling addiction, or lost their life savings.


Good intentions


In other situations the Attorney is trying to do the right thing. They may be concerned their loved one is a victim of an investment scam and transfer their funds for safekeeping.


Or they may choose to pay an accommodation bond or aged care fees from their own account. In these situations, the Attorney must seek legal advice. They can also discuss other ways to set up their loved one’s banking (for example using a term deposit or direct debits) with their financial institution.


As is often the case, prevention is better than the cure. Take steps to not only protect yourself but to also be vigilant for potential abuse.

Tips if you’re worried or unsure:


  • If an Attorney inadvertently does the wrong thing, for example transferring the Principal’s money into their own account for safekeeping, they should talk to the bank which can suggest other ways to protect the funds
  • If you’re an Attorney and are unsure if you’re allowed to make a transaction, seek legal advice
  • If you’re worried that you or a friend might be suffering financial abuse, ANZ’s Financial Vulnerability Guide has useful information, as well as where to go to get help

Kristine Daniels is Customer Advocate Lead at ANZ

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