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Why CPAs are now required to report elder abuse

Written on Dec 18, 2018

This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of CPA Voice.

By Erin C. Eurenius, Esq. CPA, 

As the traditional tax season approaches and you prepare your firm for the onslaught of tax clients, you should take a moment to incorporate new ideas to help some of your older clients.

Seniors are often targeted for financial exploitation and other forms of elder abuse. For those who elder abuse could apply to, Ohio law defines "adult" as a person who is age 60 or older, handicapped by the infirmities of aging or has a physical or mental impairment that prevents the person from providing for his or her own care or protection and resides in an independent living arrangement. There are many startling facts about elder abuse, but one that stands out is the number of unreported cases. According to the World Health Organization, one in 24 cases goes unreported. In Ohio, CPAs can assist in decreasing the number of unreported cases. As of Sept. 29, 2018, CPAs are included in the list of mandatory reporters of elder abuse under Ohio Revised Code Section 5101.63.

A mandatory reporter in the state of Ohio is required to immediately report to a county department of job and family services (CDJFS) if they have “reasonable cause to believe an adult is being abused, neglected, or exploited, or is in a condition which is the result of abuse, neglect or exploitation.” What is important to note is professionals do not need to have evidence of the abuse. The reporter might need to assist the CDJFS to confirm the abuse is taking place. The CDJFS is the legal agency to make the determination about elder abuse. It should be noted all reports to the CDJFS are confidential and not a public record. However, the reporter’s information might be shared with Adult Protective Services, law enforcement, a county prosecutor or another CDJFS office. A report made to the CDJFS should contain the following information, according to ORC 5101.63:

  • The name, address, and approximate age of the adult who is the subject of the report;
  • The name and address of the individual responsible for the adult's care, if any individual is, and if the individual is known;
  • The nature and extent of the alleged abuse, neglect, or exploitation of the adult;
  • The basis of the reporter's belief that the adult has been abused, neglected, or exploited.

There are many different forms of elder abuse including self-neglect, neglect by others, exploitation, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse. In 2017, the county JFS agencies across the state received 16,241 reports of abuse. Forty-five percent of those cases involved self-neglect. We might think of abuse involving random strangers who take advantage of seniors, but most often it is the seniors themselves who are no longer able to care for themselves. Many studies as to why elder abuse occurs cite caregiver stress and dominance as the main reasons for the abuse. When identifying elder abuse, look for two main indicators of abuse: physical and behavioral changes.

As you sit down with your senior client, take the time to have a conversation covering topics related to financial and non-financial matters. One of the first identifiers to look for is a disheveled appearance. Did your client always take the time to press his shirt and now it is wrinkled? Is your client properly grooming him or herself? Do you see marks on their skin? If you do notice changes in their appearance, ask for an explanation and see if it is plausible based on what you know about them. Next, take note of the client’s behavior. Were they once outgoing and now subdued? Is there a reason for the change of behavior? Other identifiers can include the conversation itself. Are they getting out of the house the way they used to? Are they involved with their family? Do they attend activities? As you have these conversations, be aware of changes.

CPAs are in a prime position to combat the financial exploitation of seniors. Identify whether your client has a new companion. Watch to see how involved this person is with the senior. Is the companion suddenly making decisions for your client? If there is a new “friend” involved, it might behoove you to ask if there is a power of attorney document giving this person authority over your client’s financial matters. You also might want to ask the friend to leave the room and speak to your client privately. Other warning signs to look out for include new investments and bank accounts. Examine whether the individual is receiving new 1099s they had not received in prior years. Without going too far in depth into your client’s financial matters, you might be able to see if the new financial products seem reasonable. Were they sold an annuity that will not be fully annuitized until after they are 100 years old? Another indicator might be if there are new or different addresses listed on bank statements or other tax documents that are not the client’s address. Be vigilant of these changes when working with vulnerable adults. Again, a mandatory reporter need not have all the evidence regarding the abuse or exploitation; the standard is reasonable cause.

If you do see changes, speak up. The senior might deny any allegations if you ask them directly. They might be embarrassed or fear some form of retaliation if they talk about the abuse. Many clients might need the extra boost of confidence from you as their CPA to fully realize the magnitude of the abuse. There are statutory penalties for failing to report suspected elder abuse and this could include a fine of up to five hundred dollars.

Help vulnerable adults during this tax time and educate staff on what to look for in cases of elder abuse. It is possible to help the senior population remain safe and secure and meet the new mandatory reporting requirements.

Erin C. Eurenius, Esq. CPA, is a senior associate attorney at Butcher Elder Law.

Learn more at: Listen Up! You Are Now a Mandatory Reporter of Elder Abuse

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