LETTER: Under guise of protection, laws would strip seniors of power

To Ozaukee Press:

Sometimes, protection goes too far. That is what is happening in Wisconsin right now. Two bills in the Legislature that purport to protect seniors from financial abuse throw a competent person’s right to control their own finances under the bus and relieve financial institutions of all liability if they make errors. They are SB 428 (AB 482) and SB 429 (AB 481).

In broad brushstrokes, both of these bills allow banks and securities firms to delay or refuse transactions on a customer’s account if they suspect elder abuse. The devil is in the details.

First, a “vulnerable adult” in both bills is defined as anyone who is 60 or older. I work with a lot of people who are in their 60s on issues like estate planning, guardianship of special needs children and elder law concerns regarding their parents. My husband is 62. I can tell you he is anything but vulnerable. Bill Gates is 64. Is he vulnerable? How about Oprah? She is 65.

If these pass, anyone who is 60 or older would face the possibility that at some point a bank could freeze for a period of time, or refuse, a legitimate transaction. The costs to you if it happens will not be trivial. You could face late fees, bounced check fees, service fees and legal expenses to get the matter unraveled. At the same time, the bank would be held harmless, even if it makes a mistake, as long as it acted in “good faith.”

The bills would allow a financial institution to disregard your durable power of attorney if it believes your agent is perpetrating financial abuse. Banks have a long history of refusing powers of attorney for flimsy reasons, so much so that a special law was put into place to require banks to honor them. The bills would essentially gut that law and again hold banks harmless for refusing to honor a power of attorney if they believe, even in error, that abuse is taking place.

Both of these bills seek to give great power and control over your finances to financial institutions without requiring them to be trained to recognize elder abuse. This is a recipe for mistakes that will cost seniors who are the customers of these institutions.

Financial exploitation of vulnerable adults is a serious issue. As a community, we need to take steps to correct situations, such as isolation, that lead to abuse. We need to build a court system that respects the needs of elders. A different bill, SB 430, would do just that by expediting court cases when the victims are elders.

But financial abuse at its core is about power and control, which an elder loses as a victim. Giving more power that banks and taking it away from the elders, with no accountability by the banks, only increases this problem.

These bills need more work and should be sent back to the drawing board. You have the power to let your Wisconsin legislators know that these bills should not be passed the way they are currently written. With some improvements, they could provide a real benefit. As currently written, the potential to harm individuals who are competently going about their own financial business is too high.

Carol Wessels



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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