Articles Posted in elder fraud

Trust Funds are an especially susceptible vehicle for fraud committed by FINRA registered stock brokers and financial advisors.  Two of the primary issues in such cases are “conflict of interest” and “breach of fiduciary duty.”

Trust funds can be created for a wide variety of reasons.  Frequently, though, they are used as a means to afford an orderly transfer of wealth to a younger generation.  They can offer a whole host of benefits that would make a trust fund the preferred choice over an outright gift.  For example, the recipient/beneficiary may be very young, and the trust could afford some level of control or stability to prevent the beneficiary from squandering the money.   Another reason may be certain tax advantages offered by the trust structure that would not be available in an outright give.

Regardless of the reason or reasons for its creation, a trust is going to need a trustee.  The trustee is the party responsible for overseeing the trust and managing its assets.  While trusts can hold different types of assets, they frequently contain securities, like as stocks and bonds. Therefore, such trusts would, by necessity, involve brokerage accounts.  In that case, clients will oftentimes look to their stockbroker/financial advisor to put on a “second hat” and serve as trustee.  The logic being “I already trust him/her with my money so why not let them be the trustee.”  However, this is where significant problems can be created.

New research shows that getting senior-aged investors to exhibit heightened emotions may cause those investors to more easily part with their hard-earned savings and retirement proceeds, according to a New Release published by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

The research was made possible with funding from the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation.  In the study, Stanford University Psychologists found that inducing emotions in older adults increased their intention to buy falsely advertised items, according to the News Release.  As reported, the study was conducted on younger adults and older adults, with both groups were induced to exhibit excitement or anger before watching advertisements known to be misleading.  According to the Release, the young adults group tended to believe advertisements based on their believability, and not subjective emotional states, while older adults tended to believe the misleading advertisements based only on their emotional states.

One researcher was quoted as noting “Whether the con artist tries to get you caught up in the excitement of potential riches or angry at the thought of past and future losses, the research shows their central tactic is the same and just as effective… Cons are skilled at getting their victims in to a heightened emotional state where you suspend rational thinking and willingly hand over your hard earned money to a crook.”

This week, it has been reported that the Department of Labor proposed tougher laws after issuing new regulations requiring financial advisors and brokers managing 401k and retirement accounts to act in the best interest of their clients. These rules were proposed a year ago and after deliberating on it for a year, the White House has finalized these tougher requirements. However, it might be a year before these rules go into effect.

An academic study commissioned by the White House revealed that “conflicts of interest” in financial investing was costing Americans about $17 billion a year in retirement savings. Although brokers are required to only recommend “suitable” investments under the current “suitability standard”, they can push a more expensive product that pays a higher commission than a cheaper fund that would be equally appropriate for that investor.

The new rule fiduciary rule is aimed to at reducing fees and commissions that erode retirement savings and hold brokers to higher standards. It will cast a wider net on who is subject to the fiduciary standard.

FINRA’s recently released Regulatory and Examinations Priority Letter made specific mention of multiple critical areas that the regulator will be focused on for the upcoming year.  The one that we will focus on today is the Senior investor and the steps that are and should be taken to prevent elder abuse.

As we have discussed here before, with the growing population of senior aged investors, this demographic is becoming increasingly significant in the retail investor pool nationwide.  Baby boomers are beginning to hit retirement age just as advancements in technology and medicine are leading to longer and longer lifespans.

Per 2012 census data, there are 76.4 million baby boomers which represent close to one-quarter of the then estimated U.S. population of 314 million.  These figures have coupled with longer lifespans across the boards, means that there is the potential for disaster if baby boomers’ retirement savings are not properly managed.  FINRA recognizes that “the consequences of unsuitable investment advice can be particularly severe for this investor group since they rarely can replenish investment portfolios with fresh funds and lack the time to make up losses.”

According to FINRA’s estimates, for the next 15 years, an average of 10,000 Americans will turn 65. Those of us who work with the elderly regularly, need to be attuned to deciding whether our clients have the capacity to make decisions regarding their financial affairs? All lawyers, be it in the practice area of estates, securities, or virtually any other discipline often have to make a capacity determination, while contracting services and sometimes along the way. We often have to determine if our client has the capacity to have entered into certain legal transactions.

According to the American Bar Association, Rule 1.14 that provides guidance on Client With Diminished Capacity (ABA):
 (b) When the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action, including consulting with individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client and, in appropriate cases, seeking the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator or guardian.