Growing Concerns for our Aging Population
Canada’s population is rapidly aging. With baby boomers constituting just over one quarter of our population, the percentage of elders in our society is rising at an alarming rate. In 2014, the percentage of seniors north of 65 was 15.6 percent of the population. By 2030 – in the next decade – seniors will make up 23 percent of the Canadian population. With this change in demographics, elder abuse (and financial exploitation in particular) has become somewhat of an epidemic.
Financial exploitation commonly occurs when an attorney for property abuses his/her power afforded by the Power of Attorney (“POA”) document. Executing a POA is a vital component of every estate plan. When properly drafted and with the appropriate understanding of rights, duties and obligations, a POA has the effect of protecting individuals and their heirs against future incapacity. When drafted improperly and without a clear recognition of duties and responsibilities, the consequences can be grave.
Toronto resident, Christine Fisher (“Fisher”), is all too familiar with the devastating impact that POA abuse can have on an individual’s financial situation. In 2016, Fisher was 94 and living independently in her own apartment despite suffering from the beginning stages of Dementia. Fisher ultimately executed a POA appointing an old colleague, Theresa Gardiner (“Gardiner”), as her attorney for property. In her role as attorney, Gardiner immediately moved Fisher from her apartment to a seniors’ residence – a decision that was not viewed favourably by Fisher’s family and long-time friend, Nancy Lewis (“Lewis”). In the coming months, Lewis discovered that Gardiner had been abusing the power granted to her under the POA by misappropriating Fisher’s funds. By breaching her fiduciary duty, Gardiner exacerbated Fisher’s financial situation and improved her own. In an attempt to justify her misconduct, Gardiner told CBC News that Fisher had gifted her the money. In July of 2019, Gardiner was charged with several counts of theft. Most of these charges were withdrawn by the Crown in November of 2019.
Unfortunately, the story of Christine Fisher is not an anomaly. It is a reflection of society’s tendency to overlook and ignore vulnerable elders. Given the substantial risks associated with appointing an inappropriate attorney, lawyers should remain vigilant to possibilities of incapacity, fraud and undue influence prior to creating a POA for a client. Recognizing the warning signs is the first step to protecting this vulnerable population.
Thanks for reading!
Suzana Popovic-Montag & Tori Joseph