Volunteers may act for mentally incapacitated

Volunteers may act for mentally incapacitated

A NEW scheme where volunteers help to make financial decisions for people who can no longer do so for themselves is being firmed up here.

Currently, someone who loses his mental capacity due to, say, mental problems or dementia, and has nobody to help manage his affairs, has his assets locked.

No one can help him withdraw his money or sell his flat, for instance, even if this is needed for him to stay in a nursing home, or to pay for his funeral when he dies.

But soon, volunteer guardians called "professional deputies" may extend a lifeline to such folk, mainly the elderly, who have not appointed a "donee" under the Lasting Power of Attorney scheme to make financial decisions such as selling their house and operating their bank accounts, if necessary.

The effort, which is roping in volunteer lawyers and social workers, among others, complements the Mental Capacity Act (MCA), say experts.

So far, under a one-year pilot led by the Law Society, four individuals have been matched with about 10 volunteers.

While the Act does not preclude the appointment of professional deputies, this is usually confined to trust companies which help those with no kin.

"The MCA need not necessarily require amendments if the pilot scheme were to be implemented," explained a spokesman for the Law Society. "The pilot went well, helped the beneficiaries and enabled us to discover issues that may arise when implementing the scheme on a larger scale," he added.

One issue is the lack of insurance schemes to protect volunteers from liability. For instance, the volunteers may be accused of making unwise financial decisions or abusing their powers to profit from the decisions.

So professional indemnity insurance would be needed to help them cover the substantial legal expenses they may incur when defending themselves against such claims.

If the kinks are ironed out, the society plans to appoint a formal panel of professional deputies to get the scheme rolling.

The chief executive of the Movement of the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, Mr Keh Eng Song, said there is an urgent need for such deputies.

"Increasingly, families are getting smaller, with relatives and siblings not wanting to get involved," he said.

The Law Society said it initiated the pilot after receiving feedback from charities that some mentally incapacitated elderly people needed help as they had no next-of-kin who were willing to serve as a deputy.

While there is no official data on how many people lack capacity and do not have anyone to oversee their affairs, this group is growing due to an ageing population.

The increasing numbers of those who live alone and rising cases of dementia are also telling.

Figures for those who live alone have tripled over the last two decades to 109,500 people in 2012. And around 28,000 Singaporeans aged 60 and above have dementia, a number which is projected to hit 80,000 by 2030.

Lawyer Kee Lay Lian, who appointed a deputy for one of the cases under the pilot, said the scheme could help provide a better quality of life for the individuals.

"One old man was in a nursing home and, with the money from the sale of his flat, he could have paid for better class wards if he was hospitalised, or afford other services," she said.

To prevent financial abuse by the deputies, the volunteers must keep records of decisions or transactions made.

They will also have to place the client's assets with a trust company, to be used for the individual's food and medical needs.

jantai@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on January 30, 2015.
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