Only in recent decades have Americans begun to acknowledge the problem of elder abuse. The actual number of elderly persons who are abused in the United States is unknown; but undoubtedly greater than most people think. As part of the Elder Justice Act of 2002, Congress estimated that between 500,000 and 5,000,000 elders are abused, neglected, or exploited annually. While most elder abuse goes unreported, National Center of Elder Abuse statistics show that reported incidents of abuse doubled in the years between 1986 and 1994.
While elder abuse is most often assumed to be physical abuse, financial abuse is probably just as widespread or more. As a class, the elderly have significant assets and at the same time are especially vulnerable as they age to the fiduciaries who are charged with the care of their property and assets. Guardians or conservators may use the elder’s funds in a self-interested manner, which may not be caught in time by court or accounting review. An agent under a durable power of attorney can even more easily take the elder’s assets without fear of detection. Unscrupulous lawyers and investment managers are in a unique position to take advantage of a vulnerable aging adult client that is tough to challenge.
Of course such abuse can be addressed in the courts through criminal actions, and traditional common law civil lawsuits for battery, fraud or negligence. But as a practical matter the diffulties of proving and recovering damages through elderly witnesses meant few cases were actually brought under these legal theories. This has led many states, including California, to enact elder abuse statutes designed to clarify the standards for recovery and expand the available remedies in lawsuits for elder abuse.