Call for new power of attorney laws to protect against financial abuse

The group want standardised power-of-attorney laws across Australia. Source: Getty.

It is estimated that around five per cent of all older Australian’s fall victim to financial elder abuse, with trusted family, friends and carers taking advantage of those must vulnerable in a bid to swindle them out of money.

Now Council on the Ageing (COTA) is calling for a change in the law to protect those at risk of exploitation, demanding the creation of an online register to document power of attorney orders as well as the implementation of standardised power-of-attorney laws across the whole of Australia.

COTA Australia has joined forces with National Seniors Australia and the Australian Banking Association to demand action, with COTA reporting an increasing number of “inheritance impatience” cases where adult children take advantage of their parents to try and access inheritance money prematurely.

National Seniors Australia CEO Professor John McCallum said: “It’s a heartbreaking situation and banking staff often see firsthand elderly people being taken advantage of by trusted family, friends and carers. As a society, we can and need to do more to support older people who are being exploited in this way.

“We welcomed the Federal Government’s announcement in February to progress a national plan for elder abuse and their budget commitment in May of $22 million over five years to standardise power of attorney orders.

“But we also need a designated organisation in each jurisdiction where bank staff can be supported to safely report suspected financial abuse for investigation. At the moment, police generally require the customer to make a complaint and the bank to make a formal application providing detailed information about the customer, for example their medical history. This is not an appropriate role for the banks.”

Read more: I became the victim of financial abuse: One retiree shares his story.

The pressure group penned a joint letter, distributed to every state and federal attorney-general, calling on them to take decisive action at their Council of Attorneys-General meeting on Friday. They are also calling for the creation of a dedicated body in each state to crack down on financial abuse of the elderly.

Currently, Queensland is the only state where the Office of the Public Guardian possesses the power to investigate allegations that an adult has been neglected, exploited or abused, but McCallum said they want to see that model adopted across the entire country. 

In all other states and territories police require the bank to lodge a detailed formal complaint before an investigation into financial abuse can take place, however Professor McCallum said this is not appropriate, adding that a dedicated organisation would provide essential support for bank staff to safely report suspected financial abuse.

On Friday the Commonwealth Bank of Australia launched a new Safe and Savvy program to help customers and its own staff spot and prevent elder abuse. Teams at nearly 1,000 CommBank branches around the country will be trained to report suspicious financial transactions, alongside a guide that’ll be available online and in branches.

The bank offered three signs that it said could mean an older relative or friend was being financially abused. They were: noticing the person has started making sudden, atypical financial decisions, such as transferring large sums of money or giving someone access to an account, appearing to be surprised, unsure or overwhelmed by financial decisions being made by another party, or showing signs that there may be another party who is dictating and pushing the older person to make financial decisions, such as filling out paperwork or accompanying them to an ATM to withdraw money.

Read more: Enduring power of attorney: The document that could change your life.

An enduring power of attorney (EPOA) is a legal document in which you nominate a representative or representatives to make personal, legal and financial decisions on your behalf. One person can be entrusted with decisions in all of these areas, or separate EPOAs can be drawn up for each matter.

Personal decisions relate to your care and welfare, such as consenting to medical treatment or deciding where you will live. Your attorney’s power to make these decisions on your behalf commences when you lose capacity to make them.

Is financial elder abuse something that worries you? Do you think a standardised law needs to be introduced?

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