Advice for elderly in business matters

Elderly people can be vulnerable in regards to contracts and financial transactions. Rosie Manins finds out how problems can be prevented, and what protection is available if they arise.

Elderly people should always consult someone before signing anything or undertaking significant transactions, Age Concern Otago says.

Social worker Marie Bennett, of Dunedin, said unfortunately there were people in the community who would take advantage of the elderly if given the opportunity.

She said a good rule of thumb for those who may be vulnerable was to always seek a second opinion from a relative, friend or trusted independent party.

''Please consult somebody, especially before you sign anything. Don't do anything without consulting either family, friends, Age Concern or the Citizens Advice Bureau about whether it's a good idea,'' she said.

The old adage ''too good to be true'' was a reality, Mrs Bennett said.

''It pays to run things by someone. We are here to help protect people from being taken advantage of,'' she said.

It was difficult for elderly people to know whether they were being duped, and many were trusting of strangers if they presented as professionals, she said.

An elderly person was likely to let someone into their home if they appeared to be a tradesperson concerned about the state of the house, for example.

Mrs Bennett said the police were usually unable to do anything if a transaction was willingly entered into at the time, particularly if it involved a signed agreement.

Although there may be nothing illegal about such dealings, they were often morally wrong, she said.

Dunedin MP and Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael Woodhouse said anyone who took advantage of an elderly person should be ashamed of themselves.

He said those who made transactions with elderly people and subsequently became aware of age-related issues to do with the transaction, such as confusion, should do what they could to rectify the situation.

They had a moral imperative to do so, Mr Woodhouse said.

''Whether or not the transaction was legal, it's a moral issue. If someone feels ripped off or like they have been taken advantage of, any merchant worth their salt would reverse the transaction immediately.''

Mr Woodhouse said it was often family members who abused their relationship with elderly relatives, particularly when money was involved.

''It's an unfortunate reality.''

Elderly people were especially reluctant to deny their relatives' requests for money, to prevent conflict, he said.

Mr Woodhouse said recent legislative changes made it an aggravating factor of crime to take advantage of an elderly person, just as it was to offend against youth or other vulnerable people.

''The Government takes this sort of thing very seriously. Unfortunately, we can pass all the laws we like, but this is really a societal issue and society needs to condemn those engaged in elder abuse.''

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs said legal advice was the best avenue for elderly people who felt they might have been duped.

It said people could expect a certain level of service under the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993, including reasonable skill and care (section 28), fitness for purpose (s 29), services completed in a reasonable time or in the time fixed by contract (s 30) and guarantees as to the price of services (s 31).

The Contractual Mistakes Act 1977 might also be relevant, the ministry said.

It stated relief may be granted where mistake by one party was known to an opposing party or was common or mutual.

Courts could grant relief under section 7 to any party to a contract if that party was influenced in their decision to enter into the contract by mistake and the existence of the mistake was known to the other party.

Relief could also be granted if the mistake resulted at the time of the contract in a substantially unequal exchange of values.

Courts could declare a contract to be valid, cancel a contract, grant relief by varying a contract, and grant relief through restitution or compensation.

Prof Amanda Barusch, of the University of Otago's department of sociology, gender and social work, said a person could experience varying degrees of competence in respect of making decisions, particularly when they were elderly.

''The notion that you're either competent or not competent is getting a lot of traction these days, as issues like this come to the fore,'' she said.

If people doubted their ability to make good decisions, or their loved ones were concerned about them making decisions, there were devices such as power of attorney which could be implemented to help, Prof Barusch said.

''They can designate someone else who they trust to make decisions, but the key, of course, is that they need to be very specific about what decisions they're ready to delegate to another person,'' she said.

Problems often arose because it was hard to protect vulnerable people without taking away their rights and freedom, she said.

Prof Barusch said another aid for elderly people was databases which listed reputable professionals they could trust, or listed those known for dodgy dealing.

''In that way, community organisations like Age Concern can help,'' she said.

• Anyone can call Age Concern Otago in Dunedin on (03) 477-1040 or Alexandra on (03) 448-7075.

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