Elder abuse, fraud, and financial exploitation have been a growing problem as our population ages and are sometimes difficult to identify and rectify. Just about every family has a story about a family member being taken in by a scammer, giving money away recklessly to a new friend or romantic partner, or a caregiver taking advantage of someone with diminished mental capacity. Often the elderly person is reluctant to report the issue, since it is often a family member, close friend, or trusted helper who has perpetrated the act, and the victim may also be embarrassed about losing money or property. It is suspected that such actions are severely under-reported, and various studies estimate that anywhere from $3 billion to $36 billion per year is wrongfully taken from vulnerable, disabled, or older adults. This loss is particularly troubling in that a disabled or elderly adult may be limited in earning income and have significant health care expenses.
Many states and local jurisdictions are taking action to protect vulnerable adults. The Maryland General Assembly unanimously passed the SAFE act (“SAFE ACT”) to address this population. SAFE, which stands for “Stop Adult Financial Exploitation,” consists of a group of additions to Maryland law targeted to address the concerns. The law is focused on providing help to any adult who is physically or mentally disabled and also includes protection for individuals with substance abuse issues as well.
Included in the provisions of the SAFE ACT are a broad list of relatives and fiduciaries who may file on the susceptible adult’s behalf to recover funds, including attorneys’ fees and punitive damages. The SAFE ACT also creates opportunities for emergency relief like injunctions and voiding fraudulent documents. Prior to the SAFE ACT, recovering lost funds if the victim had passed away, or if the wrongdoer was the guardian or personal representative was more difficult. The SAFE ACT gives two Maryland agencies, the Office of the Attorney General and the Maryland Securities Commissioner enhanced power to investigate these complaints. In addition, the SAFE act includes the option for a civil lawsuit to recover damages.
While the new SAFE act is an important tool in preventing financial loss and in recovering funds, there is much you can do in keeping your or your loved one’s assets secure. Check in with your relative on a regular basis, as isolated or lonely adults are prime targets for scammers. Having a comprehensive estate plan, including a will, power of attorney for financial and legal transactions, and health care directives are also critical.
If you have any questions about having an appropriate estate plan or concerns about a relative or friend being financially exploited, please contact me by email or phone at (301) 251-1180.