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The Criminal Consequences Of Exploiting Vulnerable Adults

If you were inclined to do so, you could look up § 18.2-178.1 in the Code of Virginia to learn about the penalties associated with the financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Although we will explain what a vulnerable adult is and what exploitation looks like, it is essential to note that this is now a crime. Previously, they were strictly civil matters, but breaches of fiduciary duties are now criminal acts. 

Vulnerable adults can be people with mental or physical conditions who cannot adequately care for themselves. This may or may not be due to age. Whereas this usually refers to elderly adults, Virginia law states it can be anyone at least eighteen. Because of their impairments, they are vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and exploitation. The following are examples of who can be classified as a vulnerable adult.

  • People over 18 who lack the mental capacity to provide for their basic needs.
  • Anyone over 60
  • Those who cannot protect themselves from abuse because of a decision-making impairment from mental illness, intellectual disability, or other cognitive impairment
  • A court also has the authority to declare someone incapacitated or incompetent. (This is common when someone seeks guardianship or conservatorship over someone else.)
  • Anyone who receives care or services that the Virginia Department of Social Services funds is also considered vulnerable

Abuse Charges

When someone is charged, the prosecution’s ultimate goal is to prove that the victim is a vulnerable adult and that a form of abuse or neglect was present. Although the two terms get (mistakenly) used interchangeably, they are separate and distinct terms. 

  • Abuse occurs when a person knowingly causes injury or pain. As frightening as it is, this can happen when a vulnerable adult has been physically restrained or has suffered another form of punishment from their abuser. 
  • Neglect is when a person deliberately fails to provide care, treatment, or services even though it is their responsibility. This results in the vulnerable adult being put in a dangerous situation or one where they have been injured. For example, consider the person in a long-term care facility who has been neglected by the staff responsible for caring for them.

Financial Exploitation

It is essential to realize that the law also protects vulnerable adults from being financially exploited. Virginia’s Code of Law describes it in the following way: 

“‘Financial exploitation’ means the illegal, unauthorized, or fraudulent use, or deprivation of use, of the property of an incapacitated adult with the intention of benefiting someone other than the incapacitated adult.”

Many people prepare for the possibility of incapacity through their estate plans. When people create complete estate plans, they typically generate powers of attorney and medical powers of attorney. This ensures people can make decisions regarding their finances and healthcare. Suppose the “agent” abuses their role as a power of attorney and misuses the incapacitated adult’s funds. In that case, they can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which will be discussed in the following section. 

The Penalties & Consequences

We published this blog to explain and establish that abusing or neglecting a vulnerable adult is no longer only a civil matter; it has severe criminal consequences. For example, even if the accused’s first offense and the vulnerable adult didn’t receive a severe bodily injury, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor. This carries up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2500. The key distinction is that no one was injured due to neglect or abuse. However, if they did, this charge becomes a Class 4 felony. If convicted, the defendant faces 2-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. (If it is the person’s second offense, it is a Class 3 felony. Prison sentences range between 5-20 years, but the fine remains the same.)

Plan for the Future

The legal team at Norton Pelt proudly handles both criminal law and estate planning for our clients, and this topic addresses both. For professional and reliable legal assistance with wills, trusts, power of attorney, or advanced medical directives, contact our office to schedule a consultation. Additionally, we will support you and fight for your rights if you face criminal charges, regardless of their severity. 

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