Date posted: 31/05/2022

How to help protect vulnerable clients (and yourself)

Managing relationships with older clients can be challenging. Here’s how to protect them while maintaining your professional ethics and integrity.

In brief

  • Raise a client’s health concerns in a sensitive manner so you can act on their changing needs
  • Be alert to any danger signs from a client’s support person indicating financial abuse
  • Set up a power of attorney well before a client needs one

At Chartered Accountants ANZ (CA ANZ), our Ethics and Professional Standards Advisory team commonly deals with concerns from members who manage relationships with clients who are getting very old. 

As an accountant, you’ll likely need to be alert to changes in your clients’ behaviour that may raise some confronting questions. 

For example, does the client have an impairment that may impact their ability to understand and sign paperwork? Or do they appear to be under the undue influence of another party?

These situations can be particularly challenging if you’ve come to know the client and their family well over many years of service. 

To ensure you’re upholding the highest of professional ethics with older clients, here are four important things to keep in mind.

1. You’re not a doctor, but …

Accountants aren’t trained to diagnose disorders such as dementia. However, you need to understand and be alert to issues that may indicate your client has a health problem. If you sense there’s a problem, it’s important to raise it in a sensitive manner that ensures you can meet your client’s changing needs.

Common signs that there may be an issue with a client include:

  • poor short-term memory, including repetition multiple times within a conversation
  • poor judgment 
  • an inability to plan
  • an inability to reason (that is, to reach a logical conclusion for a given set of facts)
  • difficulty communicating 
  • problems with simple calculations they were previously capable of
  • a deterioration in personal presentation, mood or social withdrawal.

If you notice a problem, check whether your client has set up a power of attorney (POA). If they haven’t, ask them whether there’s anyone who can help them with their affairs and potentially accompany them to meetings. Ensure you write everything down and provide your client with a copy.

If your client truly lacks capacity, and no POA or other authority exists to act on their behalf, then you may need to end your engagement with them.

2. Is the client’s support person helping your client or themselves?

A client may rely on a family member or friend to help them with their affairs. This may be as simple as having someone to drive them around, gently remind them of issues previously discussed, or help with online activities. 

However, there are times when this relationship may be more obtrusive. The support person may be taking advantage of your client and not acting in their best interests.

At first, you should assume that the client is acting of their own free will. But if they are always with, or constantly referring to, another person, you should be alert to any danger signs that may indicate financial abuse within that relationship.  

These may include the support person:

  • seeking to control access to money
  • using your client’s money without their knowledge or consent
  • forcing your client to sign a legal document, or forging their signature
  • threatening or punishing a person.

If you suspect a troubling relationship, ask your client if they can discuss matters privately with you so you can make your concerns clear. Tell your client why you believe the support person’s actions aren’t in their best interests and the risks you’ve identified. 

Ask your client whether there’s another person who can help them and whether they’ve established a POA. Most importantly, make sure you write everything down and give your client a copy of your notes.  

If you conclude the risk of elder abuse for your client is too great, you may need to end your engagement with them and further consider your ethical obligations under APES 110 in step 4 below.

3. Taking initiative early in the process

The best way to protect your client is by checking that a POA is set up well before they need one. Once a person has lost capacity, establishing a POA is not possible. Talk to your clients about planning for how to manage their affairs if they become unable to do so. 

Establishing a POA is a legal process. Once your clients have set one up and given you a copy, the person assigned in the POA can sign on your client’s behalf as required.

4. Acting ethically and with integrity

Consider your ethical obligations under APES 110 Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants   and how they apply to the problems raised by clients who lack mental capacity or are subject to the undue influence of other parties.

When it comes to integrity and professional behaviour, elder abuse is a crime. You can’t be involved in facilitating it.

Often the abuser is a family member. You may need to seek your client’s permission to involve another party to support them, or call upon the person named in the POA. 

If the situation is intractable or you feel your client is the victim of a crime, you may need to stand down. Seek legal advice before reporting the matter to an authority such as the police.

As for confidentiality, you can’t reveal your client’s personal information without their consent. However, if a person has been given a POA, then they can be given access to client information in accordance with that POA. Always check before you share information. What seems like a favour to help a client could have serious consequences for you as an accountant.

‘The best way to protect your client is by setting up a power of attorney well before they need one. Once a person has lost capacity, establishing a power of attorney is not possible.’

Where to go for more information

Do you have any further questions or need practical guidance on a complex professional issue? As part of your membership with CA ANZ, you can speak directly to an experienced member of the Professional Standards and Ethics Advisory team. 

This free support service is completely confidential and available to all current members. Make an enquiry via phone or email, or by using the online form provided on our contact page below.

Contact us

AIFS Financial Abuse article  

Article from the Australian Institute of Family Studies: Powers of attorney and financial abuse of older people in Australia.

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