All About Estates

Forensic Profile of Perpetrators of Financial Elder Abuse

Financial elder abuse is defined by the World Health Organisation as the illegal or improper exploitation or use of funds or resources of the older person.[i] The misuse of a senior’s funds and assets involves the use of the senior’s funds without that senior’s knowledge and/or full consent, or, in the case of a senior who is not mentally capable, when the use of funds is not in that senior’s best interests.[ii] It is perhaps the most common form of elder abuse.[iii]

Undue influence is something that occurs when a fiduciary or confidential relationship exists in which one person substitutes his mind for that of another and benefits from that relationship because of that influence.[iv]

Although financial elder abuse may be committed by professionals, formal care providers and advisors, perpetrators are more commonly a person with whom the senior has a trusting relationship[v]; often close family members even living with the victim.[vi]

When family members have free access to an older person’s assets without oversight, the opportunity for financial elder abuse is heightened.[vii] Frequently, the abuser is an adult child who never left home or failed to establish herself or himself outside his parents’ home and then returned home to live. That child assumes a disproportionately larger role in the parents’ life and consequently gains more authority as the senior becomes more dependent.[viii] Amongst family members, there is some consensus that an abuser is more likely to be male, have mental health issues or experience drug/alcohol problems, and have social and/or emotional dependency issues.[ix]

Perpetrators exercise a persuasive influence over the vulnerable senior to exploit their trust and dependency to essentially dominate the will of the senior.[x] Clues to recognizing perpetrators may include when an individual keeps other family members away from the senior; tells tales about other heirs to alienate them from the senior; and controls personal access, mail, and phone calls from relatives to the senior.

Perpetrators take affirmative steps or actions to persuade victims to engage in behaviours that are contrary to their interests in ways that exceed what is considered to be “normal” persuasion. Perpetrators often engage in a distinct set of behaviours to isolate and manipulate the victim to gain control over them. Actions include controlling weaker persons’ environment and social interactions by imposing isolation, insulating them from outside supervision and advisors, poisoning their relationships with others and/or invoking fear of others. Other tactics include inducing dependency through “puppeteering” (inducing trust or submissiveness to the point that victims mindlessly follow whatever requests the exploiters make) and reinforcing feelings of helplessness.

Perpetrators tend to promote the idea that they are all-knowing or all-powerful. Perpetrators will manipulate transactions and the settings in which they occur – for example, by initiating transactions and doing so in secrecy. They may discourage or prevent victims from seeking third party advisors or independent advice and carry out actions outside of normal settings. They tend to time their actions when victims are emotionally vulnerable, such as when ill or dying.[xi]

Factors relating to a sense of entitlement are particularly linked to perpetrators of financial abuse. If perpetrators are heirs, they may feel justified in taking an advance on their inheritance or in exercising control of assets that they perceive to be rightfully theirs.[xii]

Complaints and requests for an investigation of financial elder abuse can be made to the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT). The Substitute Decisions Act provides the OPGT with the duty and powers to investigate “any allegation that a person is incapable” with respect to either property or personal care and that “serious adverse effects are occurring or may occur as a result.” Perpetrators beware.

[i] World Health Organisation (2002) Missing Voices. Views of older people on elder abuse, WHO: Geneva.

[ii] Walsh, C. A., & Yon, Y. (2012). Developing an empirical profile for elder abuse research in Canada. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 24(2), 104-119.

[iii] Acierno, R., Hernandez, M. A., Amstadter, A. B., Resnick, H. S., Steve, K., Muzzy, W., & Kilpatrick, D. G. (2010). Prevalence and correlates of emotional, physical, sexual, and financial abuse and potential neglect in the United States: The National Elder Mistreatment Study. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 292.

[iv] Ray D. Madoff. “Unmasking Undue Influence.” Minnesota Law Review 8, (1997): 571-630.

[v] Promoting the Right of All Older People to Live Free from Abuse. Elder Abuse Prevention Unit. (2014). Available at:

[vi] Nievod, A. (1992). Undue influence in contract and probate law. Journal of Questioned Document Examination, 1(1), 14-26.

[vii] Setterlund, D., Tilse, C., Wilson, J., McCawley, A. L., & Rosenman, L. (2007). Understanding financial elder abuse in families: the potential of routine activities theory. Ageing and Society, 27(4), 599-614.

[viii] Quinn MJ. Geriatr Nurs. 2002 Jan-Feb;23(1):11-6. Undue influence and elder abuse: recognition and intervention strategies

[ix] O’Connor, D., Isabel Hall, M., & Donnelly, M. (2009). Assessing capacity within a context of abuse or neglect. Journal of elder abuse & neglect, 21(2), 156-169.

[x] Geffen v. Goodman Estate, [1991] 2 SCR 353

[xi] Spar, J. E., & Garb, A. S. (1992). Assessing competency to make a will. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 149(2), 169-174.

[xii] Dessin, C. L. (1999). Financial abuse of the elderly. Idaho L. Rev., 36, 203.

About Dr. Richard Shulman
Dr. Shulman is a geriatric psychiatrist at Trillium Health Partners and is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. He is medical director of the Capacity Clinic and available for independent medical-legal capacity assessments.


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