‘My family was torn apart over my grandmother’s estate’

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Financial abuse affects a large proportion of the Australian community each year. Source: Getty

When domestic or family abuse is mentioned in the media, the terms ‘physical’ or ‘sexual’ most likely spring to mind for many people. However, there is a third strain of abuse that should not be forgotten and is wreaking havoc in Australians’ lives.

Financial abuse may not leave a physical mark, but it undeniably affects victims for the rest of their lives, not only by leaving them out of pocket but potentially breaking families apart.

In Australia alone, this form of abuse is especially common among the elderly, who already face hardships later in life. Previous data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed 15.7 per cent of women in Australia and 7.1 per cent of men had experienced financial abuse at some point in their lives.

One of the many people across the country who has sadly fallen victim to this type of abuse is Tony Bonfiglio who found himself in all kinds of financial trouble following the death of his beloved grandmother.

As a close knit family, Bonfiglio never thought there would be any disagreements when it came to settling his grandmother’s estate – but he was wrong. After paying for the funeral and transportation of her remains back to her home country of Italy, the family came to settle the estate.

With no will in place they decided to simply sit down and disburse the funds fairly – something Bonfiglio believed would be a relatively simple process. Sadly, it went the other way.

“Solicitors were engaged by two of the siblings, accusations were made of misappropriation of funds and in the process of responding to these claims they very secretly applied to the courts to become Administration of the Estate,” Bonfiglio told Starts at 60.

“Something we were not aware of and [we] were not even given the option of being appointed joint administrators. They left us in the dark, having to defend ourselves in every matter involving the finances of my grandmother.”

According to Bonfiglio, costs that himself and his parents incurred on behalf of the estate were denied by the other two members of the family, as they claimed they weren’t legitimate expenses that could be reimbursed. This included headstone costs, as well as nursing fees he had paid for while his grandmother was in a nursing home.

“Our own solicitor was quite amazed about their excuse for not reimbursing us,” Bonfiglio explained. “We were out of pocket with no option but to accept it.”

In the end, Tony said the estate took three years to finalise with a cost of $50,000. This money came out of the estate itself which Bonfiglio explained in effect meant that all the beneficiaries ended up paying for someone else’s greed.

The emotional heartache experienced through this process has continued to affect Bonfiglio and his parents’ lives, with ongoing family rifts.

“To think that our own family could have done this was beyond us,” he said. “It was so bad that when my father passed away in 2011, none of the siblings that started the legal process came to his funeral, not their own children.

“We have disowned them as being part of our family. Unfortunately, the emotional effect will go on forever.”

According to Bennett & Philp Elder Abuse and Litigation expert Charlie Young, sadly this type of abuse is only increasing – with the ageing Baby Boomer generation the most vulnerable.

“As people age, many of them sensibly create a power of attorney in preparation for when they will require assistance to manage their finances,” he explained to Starts at 60.

“Unfortunately, the main culprits of this kind of abuse are the power of attorneys who have been chosen by the victim themselves, usually a child or someone they have known for many years and trust enough to ensure them with responsibility of their finances.”

Financial abuse is not always easy to spot with many Australians falling vicim without even knowing it. Thankfully though, according to Young, there are some tell-tale signs to look out for should you suspect a family member or friend is at risk of losing their livelihood.

“Knowing what to look for is important because financial abuse is not always immediately obvious, often it can take place through countless smaller transactions,” he said. “But the most important thing is to trust your gut – if you are suspicious, you probably have reason to be.”

The lawyer detailed a number of steps to take in times of crisis and how to best tackle the issue without causing too much distress.

First of all, Young suggested if you are looking on from the outside, to speak to the victim in an attempt to find out who is causing the abuse, the extent of the abuse and which assets have been affected. Next, the decision should be made on whether or not it’s appropriate to confront the perpetrator, weighing up any potential threats that may come of it.

“When you try and speak about the financial issues to the alleged offender, monitor their reaction, for example, if they are vague, become aggressive or  suggest ‘you wouldn’t understand’,” Young explained.

“Use your discretion here, as you must be careful to take into account the person’s wellbeing. You want to ensure they have support systems in place before raising the issue with others – otherwise you could leave them stranded without any support.”

Following on from this, the lawyer suggested contacting anyone who might also be innocently involved, such as the person’s financial institution. Lastly, if all else fails, legal action can be taken.

“If you believe the victim has an illness such as dementia, seek immediate legal advice as you might need to urgently apply for an administrator to be appointed to take over the person’s financial affairs,” Young added. “Proceedings may also need to be taken for example to freeze the victim’s bank account, recover stolen assets for the victim or have a contract reversed.

“It is strongly encouraged to seek legal advice to see what options are available to you or someone you know.”

Have you or someone you know been subject to financial abuse? What advice would you give others who are going through it?

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and for information purposes only. It does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. It is not financial product advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any financial decision you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from an independent licensed financial services professional.

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