Image: Adult with elderly parent © Digital Vision, SuperStock

Your grown daughter doesn't pay her bills on time. Your son lives way above his means. You love your kids, but you also worry their irresponsibility toward their own finances means they will be poor caretakers of your finances should you need help as you age. But have you given any thought to the possibility that your children might pilfer your money?

Experts estimate that between 60% and 90% of financial elder abuse is committed by family members. Law-enforcement officers and social workers believe the crime will increase as the population ages, but they are generally ill-equipped to investigate it.

No one knows exactly how many cases of financial elder abuse take place, but experts estimate as many as one out of five cases goes undetected. Many victims don't disclose they've been victimized due to shame and embarrassment or worries about retaliation.

It's also a crime that cuts across social classes: Actor Mickey Rooney went public earlier this year with his own victimization at the hands of a relative, while the high-profile trial of the son of wealthy socialite Brooke Astor encompassed charges of estate tampering and elder abuse.

Running the risk of losing it all

The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, dedicated to the prevention of abuse of seniors and adults with disabilities, received a message that exemplifies financial elder abuse:

"My wife and I heard from her sister . . . that their mother confessed their brother has talked Mom and Dad [age(s) 81 (and) generally sound mind] out of there (sic) entire $4 million retirement savings and they have nothing but Social Security left."

The offender is often an adult child who still relies on his or her parents for support. "Research suggests that increased risk of elder financial abuse by adult children is associated with such factors as the perpetrator's unemployment, inability to drive and financial dependence upon the older person," says Winsor Schmidt, a professor of family and geriatric medicine at the University of Louisville.

Who is at risk?

Schmidt says studies indicate an older person may be at greater risk of financial exploitation when the individual has problems completing ordinary yet vital tasks, such as using the telephone or doing housework.

Other conditions that predispose the elderly to financial abuse: dementia and depression. With families scattered in our mobile society, says Schmidt, chances are greater than ever that someone can steal from or mismanage the assets of a parent without his or her siblings finding out.

Evaluating your situation

The ability to retain their independence ranks high on the priority list of aging Americans. Few anticipate that their kids might someday cheat them out of their retirement savings. Paula Mixson, a certified guardian and the clerk of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, says that she would caution older adults to consider a child's history of substance abuse, chemical dependency and other addictions (such as compulsive gambling) when settling on a financial caretaker.

Mixson says parents are often hesitant to admit a child might not be up to the task, and parents often feel a child's failing is their own fault and continue to shoulder a filial responsibility for their actions.

"I once had an elderly client tell me that she didn't want anything done about her son, who had pushed her down the stairs, because if he wasn't allowed to live with her, 'It was winter and he'd be living under a bridge,'" says Mixson.

Women frequently targeted

Although anyone can fall victim to elder financial abuse, women are more likely to do so. For biological and demographic reasons, women are targeted more often, says Pamela Teaster, the director of the Graduate Center for Gerontology at the University of Kentucky, and one of the authors of the MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse.

"Women still tend to live seven years longer than their male counterparts," Teaster says.

Making plans

Planning for the future involves more than simply making a will or crunching the numbers to make sure there's enough income on which to live. It's also a time to plan ahead for the eventuality that someone else will have to take over the checkbook.

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Kevin Schwartz, of the California-based law firm Schwartz & Schwartz, says, "Many people still have that feeling of, 'Well, it will never happen to me . . . my children get along great and will take care of me if and when I need it. I certainly have nothing to worry about.'"

Schwartz says that when planning for financial security, one should choose someone who isn't just "good with money," but who is "good with other people's money" as well.

Ideally, these issues should be addressed with an attorney during estate planning, but even seniors with tiny incomes and small estates can fall victim to predatory relatives. For them, the best alternative would be to avoid becoming isolated and ask others outside the family to check on their welfare.

"Don't allow one family member to alienate you from the rest of the family," says Mixson. "If you can't leave your home, then find ways to bring different people into your home. Always realize that elder (financial) abuse can happen to you."