If a stranger or someone close to you is exploiting your age or health for access to your money, you'd better believe that's a personal finance issue.

ReKeithen Miller as certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta notes that financial elder abuse isn't always outright fraud. In most instances, it is a close friend or family member taking advantage of victims' diminished capabilities to pressure or influence them to act against their best interests.

For example, some people who are not capable of handling major transactions may still be very capable of handling routine financial matters like paying bills. Other who are highly functional when medicated but can't make sound decisions without their prescriptions. Those with vision or hearing loss may be able to make transactions just fine in person, but struggle to do so over the phone.

"Those who are most vulnerable to financial exploitation usually retain some degree of financial independence but rely on someone else for their other needs," Miller says. "This opens the door for a third party to exploit the relationship."

The Justice Department says the red flags for this kind of abuse are everywhere. If there are sudden changes in bank accounts or practices -- including unexplained withdrawals of large sums of money -- when the customer is accompanied by an unfamiliar person, that's a sign. If new names pop up on that older person's bank signature card or unauthorized withdrawals are made using that person's ATM card. If a will or other estate-planning documents change abruptly, if funds or valuables go missing, if the standards of care or housing slip, if forged signatures start cropping up in financial transactions or if relatives suddenly appear and claim (or outright take) property, possessions or money, those are all problematic. Also, if an older friend or relative says they're being exploited, don't shrug it off.

"Abuse isn't always the result of a carefully plotted scheme," Miller says. "Family members' emotions can run high, and fights can result in collateral financial damage to an individual unequipped to defend his or her own wishes."

The best way to defend against that exploitation is to prepare, even if that means surrendering some financial independence. Studies have discovered that financial decision-making peaks around age 53 and gradually declines, even among healthy individuals. It's part of the aging process, but Fidelity Investments discovered that 60% of older adults worry about burdening their families with the task of managing the finances.

"The inevitability of losing financial independence is something for which we all need to plan," says Suzanne Schmitt, vice president of family engagement for Fidelity Investments. "That's why it's important for families to be in sync about what needs to happen in the event it's necessary to take the financial keys away from a loved one. By engaging in conversations now and having a strong support system in place, families can help loved ones gracefully transition into that next phase of their lives."

While only 9% of older adults (aged 50-80) surveyed by Fidelity felt they'd never lose the ability to manage their day-to-day finances, 60% admit to having witnessed it happen to a friend or family member—and 40% actually helped manage their own parents' finances. Financial firm Edward Jones found that 43% someone close to them who had or is currently dealing with Alzheimer's disease. That includes 51% of Baby Boomers who've known someone who's struggled with Alzheimer's.

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