Financial abuse involves the misuse or control of someone’s financial resources to exploit, manipulate, or gain power over them.
Zoe Blomfield, Managing Partner at Viberts explores what is meant by ‘undue influence’ and advises on what to do if you, or someone you know, is the victim of this type coercion.
Over the last two years I have seen a sharp increase in cases where family members or friends have raised concerns about people seeking to influence the minds and opinions of others.
Elder abuse and oppression of the vulnerable is on the rise. This is a real thing. People are being coerced into writing wills that do not reflect their wishes.
Usually they have been persuaded to do so by someone they know and trust. The problem is particularly acute among those who are ill and suffering from the early onset of capacity issues, from dementia for example.
This type of pressure can also be applied to affect the giving of lasting powers of attorney or the making of gifts, usually of money. The coercion can take many forms. It can be subtle or quite obvious. It usually involves some kind of poisoning of the mind or undue influence of the testator (person making the will).This can include false representations made to influence the testator and sometimes to discredit those close to the testator, in order to make or change their wills, or to make lifetime gifts.
It can also take the form of a romance scam. Romance scammers create fake profiles and then contact the elderly (and others) via popular media sites. The scammers strike up a relationship to gain a person’s trust, they then make up a story and ask for money. They prey on vulnerable, often lonely elderly people.
There were several such cases in Jersey in the last year.
This year I have advised on allegations concerning all of these issues. Fortunately, most were spotted by close family members, friends or neighbours and in most cases issues have been prevented before they have become too serious.
Cases of concern usually start with the distancing of previously close relatives and the ‘moving in’ of others, be it new partners, new friends, or relatives who have never previously been involved with the person. Perhaps strange things are purchased that the person doesn’t need, or they suffer a sudden drop in their cash balance. Any of these things can be a sign of coercion.
Coinciding with these new friendships or relationships, are usually unexpected or last minute changes to the testator’s will, different wishes being expressed from those that have been long held.
By its very nature, undue influence usually happens behind closed doors by people in positions of trust. This can make it difficult, but not impossible to prove.
Undue influence is more than just simple persuasion. When looking at a claim of undue influence the Court will look for evidence that the gifts would not have been made without the testator being subject to influence.
Where undue influence is suspected and the testator has died, it may be possible for the will to be challenged. It is far easier however to try and deal with the issue before the testator or person dies. If you suspect that someone is being coerced or is suffering from undue influence you can contact the Financial Crimes Unit at the States of Jersey Police, or you can report it to the Safeguarding Adults Team on 444440.
Alternatively, if you believe that someone has been pressured or bullied into writing or changing a will, to appoint a lasting power of attorney or to make lifetime gifts that do not reflect their true wishes, we can help.
The Viberts Private Client team is the largest in Jersey and has experience of dealing with all the above issues. Please telephone on 632263 or get in touch by email.
Zoe Blomfield is Vibert’s Managing Partner and she also heads up the Private Client department. She is a senior private client lawyer with a broad range of clients from individuals and families, to trust companies and family businesses.