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Would You Know What to Do If Your Elderly Client Was Being Abused?

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Ginni Field was aghast at the tragedy that befell a family friend in the last year and a half. The man, a veteran who fought alongside Field’s father in World War II, died with nothing — no money, no home — after he was taken advantage of by his son. The son had convinced his war-hero father, who was in his 80s, to transfer the deed on his home to the son, who then neglected to pay a single bill on the property. The home went into foreclosure, and the father lost everything. “This poor man, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, had to move to Florida and live with his daughter because he had no money,” says Field, GRI, SRES, a real estate professional with Mike Chiesl Group in Carlsbad, Calif. She contends the emotional toll of the experience led to the death of her family friend. “He died a pauper.”

This type of abuse in real estate, where family members seize on their aging, sick, or incapacitated elders to take control of their property, is happening more and more, says Field, an SRES instructor who works almost exclusively with elderly clients. In the last 18 months, she’s seen about five examples in her community similar to what happened to her family friend. “It’s the most I’ve ever seen or heard of in this kind of time period,” she says, adding that victims of elder abuse in real estate are almost always 80 years old or older.

One in five seniors falls victim to financial abuse, whether that’s by family members or outside sources, and only a fraction of those cases are reported, according to a 2015 Consumer Reports article. Real estate fraud is a part of that abuse. So as a practitioner, what’s your role and what should you do if you sense your elderly client’s family is trying rip them off in a real estate transaction?

First, Get Educated About Elder Abuse

In most cases, real estate professionals are the only ones who see abuse happening in real estate transactions, Field says. Because many elderly people are too embarrassed to report incidents in which family members attempt to take advantage of them to friends or authorities, you’re probably the only witness. So you need to know what to look for.

Field suggests consulting with the elder abuse division of your local police department — before you become involved in an incident with a client — and asking them what signs of abuse to be aware of as it pertains to the elderly in real estate fraud. One thing you’ll learn, Field says, is that if you’re the only witness, filing a complaint anonymously isn’t always the best course of action. You may need to be willing to go on the record if no one else can.

Barbara Fairfield, ABR, SRES, a practitioner at NextHome Gulf to Bay in St. Petersburg, Fla., who also teaches SRES courses, advises contacting other organizations to learn about elder abuse resources:

  • ElderCare.gov, run by the U.S. Administration on Aging, will help you find state and local resources for elderly people who need help.
  • Elder-AbuseCA.com can help you contact ombudsmen in your community who can give you advice on reporting incidents of elder abuse.
  • PreventElderAbuse.org, the website of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, can offer you tips and resources for what to do if you suspect elder abuse.
  • The National Council for Aging Care has an elder abuse page that lays out the rights of victims.

Spot the Signs of an Abused Client

“We can see if there are issues,” Fairfield says. An elderly person living with clutter, or if they’re unkempt, wearing wrinkled clothes, always have the shades pulled down, or have rodents in the house — those are all red flags that they are in hiding from someone, Fairfield suggests. When she sees someone living in these conditions, she knows it’s time to have a conversation about whether their family is involved in their lives and their real estate decisions — a conversation you should have with any elderly client anyway, she says.

“At this phase of their life, they can’t afford to make a bad financial decision,” Fairfield says. “So I’m going to ask them why they are selling, and I want to make sure isn’t anyone in the background pushing them to sell.”

A surefire sign that intrusive family members may be trying to take advantage of your client is if the client says they don’t want anyone knowing about their decision to sell, Field adds. “My alarms go off when someone says, ‘This is completely my decision.’ That tells me that they don’t trust family members. I don’t pursue that line of questioning any further, but I’m going to ask, ‘If there’s any kind of issue, how do you want me to handle it?’ And then I’m going to confirm that in writing.”

Deal With Suspicious Family Members

You have to remember who your client is. If they have children who are attempting to mettle in the transaction — maybe they request to be present at every showing or by their parent’s side at every meeting with you — and your client has expressed that they don’t want them involved, you have to learn how to politely yet forcefully get them to back off. That’s why it’s helpful to have your client’s wishes in writing.

“I’ve seen agents being accused of interference by the kids, who want to control their parents,” Field says. “You have to be brave enough to be really blunt and tell the family members that they are not the owners of the house. ‘I need you to understand that my job is to protect my client.’”

You also should be prepared to suggest alternative options if your client seems to be being pushed into a sale by family members, Fairfield says. It may be the case that they could stay in their home with a reverse mortgage, which could supply the funds for retrofitting their property with safety features, making repairs they can’t perform on their own, or bring in home healthcare providers. You want to help them remain as independent as possible and reduce their risk of having to depend on a family member who seeks to control them, Fairfield says. “We’re all about options for these individuals, not just about listing their property.”

Know If You’re Right for the Job

Not all agents have the right temperament and personality to work with the elderly, Field says. Many older clients require extra time to make decisions or extra explanation to understand their options. If they’re facing a tough situation with family, they need someone who won’t try to rush them through the process but who will be a guide for them. “Working in the senior market takes someone patience, empathy, and kindness,” Field says. “If you’re not the right person, find another niche.”

Fairfield says that for many older sellers, it could be their last real estate transaction. So that requires that you give it more importance and be willing to help them through difficult personal challenges with family if need be. “If you’re always focusing on your wallet, you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she says.

Stop and ask whether anyone besides the seller has an emotional or financial stake in the sale of their property. That will speak volumes about whether you should be wary of intrusions on the transaction and if you’re prepared to handle them. “There are some people who haven’t spoken to their children in years and aren’t going to start now,” Fairfield says. “You want to know something like that so you can decide both whether you’re willing to deal with that kind of baggage and whether that could pose a problem down the line with the sale.”

Above all else, be prepared to step in on your client’s behalf if their family starts threatening the transaction and their best interests. “If you don’t do anything, you watch someone get everything taken away from them,” Field says.

Graham Wood

Graham Wood is a senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine. He can be reached at gwood@realtors.org.

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Comments
  1. I haven’t really thought about from this angle, but thank you for sharing this info and bringing it to light. With so many baby boomers coming to retirement age and with general population getting older, I’m sure this issue will become more prevalent . Thanks for sharing.

  2. Brian

    Hi Graham,
    Your article is on point and speaks to a situation I find myself right in the middle of. My client’s husband passed recently, and he was managing several properties. Well, she doesn’t want to and neither does any of the family. We used to work together, and she asked me list the other properties. Well, in steps grand-nieces and other family members who are telling her NOT to do it…but aren’t giving her any support for managing them….which she has repeatedly stated she doesn’t want to do.
    I had to remind them that SHE was my client and that my obligation was to address her wishes and desires. They bristled at this…which she confirmed to them. However, once I left her house…they obviously talked her into delaying to take any action….she is a kind soul and doesn’t want to “upset” her family…she called me and told me she wants to wait…there is a delicate balance between the relationships of family members.
    I spoke with my client and reminded her that when she was ready, that I was here for her…I’ll have to keep tabs on this…I’ll try to speak with the family to see what their concerns are, and to let them see that I’m only there to help her first and foremost…

  3. I had that exact situation just about 4 months ago. A land owner contacted me to list her property. I listed the property at a price that I thought was much too high but I wanted to honor the sellers wishes. Immediately, the homeowner to the rear of the land put an offer in. The seller countered at full price and the counter was accepted by the Buyer. On the day the Seller was supposed to sign her closing papers, I received a call from a family friend saying they decided they did not want to sell. The daughter who is a pediatrician then joined in with the family friend to stop the sale. I later found out from the mother who is 84 that she indeed would like to sell the land but her daughter had forced her into signing a power of attorney preventing her from doing anything without the daughters consent. It seems like elder abuse to me but I am one of those afraid to interfere. Should I contact one of the above agencies to see what they say?

  4. Graham Wood

    Hi Lorie,

    It can’t hurt to call the experts, tell them the story, and see what they have to say. They can certainly let you know what steps you can take to protect your client.

  5. Erick Williams

    Wow. I’ve never looked at things from this perspective. Very insightful Grant! Thanks for sharing this. I originally came on looking for information about reverse mortgages but learned alot more. I found a video today about reverse mortgages which was very helpful as well. I’ll share the link if you’re interested.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFKlNmmo61M

    Thanks again for the great post Grant!

  6. Given my volunteer work with Search and Rescue teams over the last 14 years and the work I’ve done with hospitals, I’m very aware of looking for elder (and other) types of abuse. It is my policy to report all cases of abuse to the proper authorities.

  7. I am an SRES Senior Specialist. An elderly friend called to ask if my husband/RE partner could come and read a new document his son had left for him to sign. He said he didn’t understand what he was signing. They read through the doc together and the son had refinanced his parents home and had taken all of the equity and put it in his own pocket. Dad and Mom were paying a mortgage of $3,000 per month. Friend said he thought the house was paid off years ago, but he guessed he would sign.
    He then called back and said his wife had been in the hospital and they wanted to go to assisted living, asking us to come and list the house for them. We asked if their son was on board and he exclaimed it was their house and they didn’t need his permission. We listed the house and got a buyer right away. The market was just beginning its descent and it would be a short sale that would get them out from under the heavy mortgage, with no cash in their pocket. The son showed up, had a fit and threatened us. Dad and son went to the bedroom to talk and when Dad came out, he said he knew they were in trouble, but “our son is family”. He was devastated, in tears and apologized 100 times. We reassured them, told them to call us if they needed anything and left. Within a short few months, both passed away and eventually the house was sold by the son’s friend who is a commercial agent in San Francisco, who had also threatened us. I now have the numbers of all local agencies who can do anonymous well checks and I am not afraid to use them.

  8. This is not just an elder issue – although that is a huge problem. There are greedy family members, realtors, developers and others who will take properties from people, and lie to get them. I have a client who was robbed of her property inheritance by another family member who went to court to swear there was no will. (There was a will leaving her the property.) Since she is not living here in Houston, and she has no financial means to fight this, we have had to find an expensive attorney on contingency. She will lose a lot of money no matter what. It is a long story, and a very bad situation, and I suspect one that happens more often than we know. I am working to help her. We need to be our clients advocates when we suspect foul play. I wish there NAR and our state Associations who could assist us with these things and perhaps there needs to be something at that level.

  9. These are all good points, but sometimes there’s another reason a family member steps in to make decisions on a property.

    I’m in the process of moving my 86-year-old mother into my house because she cannot afford to live on her own. She hasn’t made good financial decisions for years, and has blown through a nice chunk of money that would have created a comfortable income. She bought a new house ten years ago at the height of the market and got a pick-a-pay adjustable rate loan, which she proceeded to make minimum payments on until it reached its limit. The time came when she was no longer able to make the payments because she didn’t have the money.

    Rather than let it go to foreclosure and lose her equity, I sold the house for her on a wrapped loan. That means we used the underlying loan to create a new, seller-financed loan, allowing me to sell the home for her at a higher value. With the help of an expert attorney, we added 2% to the existing loan’s interest rate, creating an income for her on the spread. I manage it, and send her a check every month.

    The house is no longer hers, but the underlying mortgage is still there under her name – which, to an outsider, might seem like a bad thing. Instead, the income from this, along with her social security, is her only income. Not only does she get paid, the bank gets paid, the buyer is happy, and the neighborhood property values don’t suffer another foreclosure.

  10. Graham,

    Great topic, thanks for sharing. My good friend was dealing with this same issue recently. His brother who moved away years ago suddenly came out of the blue when he heard their father had a “lot” on the line and was I’ll. It’s sickening what people will do for money. I would like to think it’s a small issue but more people you talk to, the more your find out about these type of situations. Thank you for the insight.

    -Kris

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