Spotting and Stopping Elder Abuse by Those Exerting Undue Influence During COVID-19

Foster Swift Collins & Smith
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Foster Swift Collins & Smith

From increased unemployment to social and political unrest, COVID-19 has had far-ranging consequences beyond the obvious public health crisis. One area that deserves more attention is the increasing threat of elder abuse by those exercising undue influence over isolated seniors during the pandemic.

What is Undue Influence?

Undue influence occurs when one person influences another person to do something that is not of their own free will or in their best interest, such as when a caregiver uses their role to exploit the trust and dependency of their victim to financially exploit them. If the victim of undue influence is elderly, it is a form of elder abuse.

Some examples of undue influence may include:

  • A family member pressuring an elderly relative to write out a new will
  • A health caregiver threatening to withhold medication until a power of attorney is signed
  • A neighbor emotionally manipulating a senior to gain access to their financial accounts

In 1976, Michigan’s Supreme Court set forth legal standards which provide that undue influence requires a showing that the person being influenced has been “subject to threats, misrepresentation, undue flattery, fraud, or physical or moral coercion sufficient to overpower volition, destroy free agency and impel the grantor to act against his inclination and free will.” Kar v. Hogan, 399 Mich 529 (1976).

Vulnerability to Undue Influence During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Every adult, including those who have decision-making capacity, is at risk of becoming a victim of undue influence. However, there are conditions that make it more likely that someone will be susceptible to influence. These include things like: death of a loved one, cognitive impairment, dependence on others, diminished capacity, fearfulness, illness, isolation, and loneliness.

These types of conditions are common for many seniors even under normal circumstances, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more prevalent, creating greater vulnerability.

The need for social distancing, in particular, has isolated many seniors from community resources and family support systems that can help protect against undue influence.

Accordingly, it is important to be aware of situations that might give an individual the opportunity to exert influence and control over a friend or family member, especially when a loved one is sick or isolated. Once a person exerts undue influence over another person and psychological dependence is established, it can be difficult to break.

Ways to Safeguard Against Undue Influence

Last March, the State of Michigan formed the Michigan Elder Abuse Task Force. In announcing the task force, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel stated that “More than 73,000 older adults in Michigan are victims of elder abuse.”

Unfortunately there is no method to eradicate elder abuse. However the following precautions will help mitigate undue influence:

  • Help to establish and maintain a core group of trusted advisors, such as a financial advisor and elder law attorney, for your family member or friend.
  • Stay in close contact with family members and friends, especially those who are elderly, isolated and require assistance.
  • If you suspect that someone may be exerting undue influence, document your concerns so that there is a record established should you need to take steps to reverse actions taken as a result of undue influence.

If you have concerns about a family member or friend, do not dismiss them for fear of seeming paranoid. Elder abuse resulting from undue influence is a real and growing risk, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An experienced elder law attorney can work with you to help someone else break free of the grip of undue influence and repair any damage that may have been done. For example, an elder law attorney can help you take steps to contest a document, such as a will or power of attorney, that was created improperly.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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