Capacity and competency are terms loosely thrown around these days. How can you tell if your client has financial capacity? This kind of capacity is the most complex and requires intact judgment. You must have a good working knowledge of it or you could come under scrutiny for giving advice or selling products to an individual who is impaired. One thing is certain: you can’t tell if your client has the capacity for making financial decisions just from a quick call or social chat when ominous signs already exist suggesting that some impairment is present.

What do we know about financial capacity? It is defined as “the capacity to manage money and financial assets in ways that meet a person’s needs and which are consistent with his/her values and self-interest.” This seems straightforward, but it is not. Some people develop brain disease as they age, and with dementia, the erosion of mental capacity can take place over years. During the earliest stages of dementia, the brain cells are being damaged by the disease process, but the person has other brain cells “in reserve” and can still function in many areas without impairment. However, research has found that for people who are developing Alzheimer’s disease, financial capacity is already impaired even at the beginning stage.

If you have an elderly client who is still in charge of his finances, not unusual at all in our aging society, be aware that some clues may point to loss of financial judgment. To see those clues, you will need to observe your client over time and document the warning signs of diminishing capacity. Overall diminished capacity often means that a person does not have financial capacity any longer.

Financial capacity is divided into nine distinct areas. All nine must be intact for a person to have adequate judgment to act in his own best interests. One of the most important of the nine is the understanding of investments.

The person with this area intact is able to engage in and actively participate in developing an understanding of any financial investment decision. Knowing the value of a proposed transaction and the attendant risks are part of this area of competency.

If this sounds complicated, it is. You may be wondering if any of your clients are essentially competent in all nine areas. Some are not. Most people, if you wanted to take the time involved to patiently explain things like risk of an investment in simple terms, would get it. But when a client can’t tell the difference between a twenty-dollar bill and a five-dollar bill, that client is not competent financially, even if he can carry on a perfectly normal conversation about his favorite sports team or politics.

One clue to ask your client about is whether she is able to keep track of and pay all her own bills. If family or any other helper are doing this for her there is a reason. That may be that she forgets bills or pays them twice. That is a sign that financial capacity may be eroded. You need to take the next step and look at other areas of financial capacity before your client makes any further financial decisions.

If you aren’t sure what the nine areas of financial capacity are and you want to find out about this, you can do that fast in a chapter of our book, Succeed With Senior Clients: A Financial Advisor’s Guide to Best Practices. The chapter that will quickly give you the answers you need is “Nuts and Bolts: What Are the Components of Financial Capacity?” Get your copy today by clicking HERE.


By Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Elder law attorney,

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