Solicitors have reported a threefold increase in property transfers in the past two years, since the Government gave local authorities - rather than the Department of Social Security - responsibility for assessing and managing residential accommodation
for elderly people.
Cash-strapped local councils, with a direct budgetary interest, have been much more aggressive in forcing old people living alone, who need to go into residential homes, to sell their houses to pay the fees. As a result, many of the elderly have seen their children's inheritance vanish.
Those who refuse to go into care to protect their homes from sale may soon have a charge put on their property even for local-authority domestic help. And those who transfer their homes to avoid charges may in some cases find themselves pursued by councils in the courts.
Laurie Gregory, acting director of social services for Hereford and Worcester, which has been considering taking both these steps, said : "Inheritance for a lot of people is under severe threat. Long-held assumptions that you pass on to your children what you have accumulated are being challenged."
Under the residential care rules, elderly people have to pay in full if their assets, including their home, are worth more than £8,000, although the property will be ignored if another partner continues to live in it.
Councils are allowed to put a legal charge on the property of people taken into care to cover the costs, which currently average £199 a week in a residential home, £293 in a nursing home.
A dossier of cases compiled by Hereford and Worcester shows just how quickly property and savings can disappear. One 97-year-old woman, blind and partially deaf, spent £120,000 on being looked after at home over three years, and now has only £8,000 and her house left.
No central data is available for the number of elderly people transferring property, but it is believed to be substantial. "Clients are aware of the need to be discreet about it. It is not something you want to trumpet because if it can be proved that one of the reasons for doing it was to avoid payment there might be problems,'' said Richard Bark-Jones, a solicitor and member of the Law Society's land, law and succession committee.
He added: "I would say that the number of people transferring property has tripled over the last couple of years. Very often it is, I suspect, initiated by the younger generation, not only because it may be in their financial interest, but also because they are more aware of the opportunities.''
Luke Clements, solicitor and community care legal adviser to the National Carers' Association said : "More and more people are transferring property; there is almost an avalanche of requests.''
But hard-up council social services departments, who are faced with an unprecedented demand for care, are now trying to crack down on those people who are taking steps to preserve their inheritance.
If a house is transferred within six months of the elderly person going into care, the council can recover its money, and authorities also have discretionary powers to act in cases outside this period where it can be proved that transfers were performed to evade charges.
Hereford and Worcester is specifically giving its director of social services power to act in such cases. Mr Gregory said: "The situation is that if we have clear evidence that people have gone about disposing of their property prior to receiving a service, then they will be treated as if they still had those assets.
"I think that is very reasonable. Why should other people have to pay when you are sitting on these sorts of assets, and you have gone out of your way to get rid of them just prior to receiving services? We have quite a lot of evidence of this with people going to extraordinary lengths.''
Paul Griffiths, district purchasing manager with Hereford and Worcester social services, said: "What has been happening is that people have been giving their capital away to relatives or children.'' He and Age Concern, however, warn that there can be dangers in such transfers. "For instance, if the son to whom you transfer the property gets divorced, his ex-wife may have a claim on what was your house,'' he said. Age Concern also warns that, once transferred, the property cannot be used to raise a loan.
With the cash shortages facing social services departments - a national shortfall of £800m is expected by 1997 - those who try to evade fees may face tougher action. Penny Letts, secretary to the Law Society's mental handicap and disability committee, said: "It all does really depend on how far local authorities are prepared to go in pursuing a claim. Up to now they have not pursued it to a great degree, but with the problems over community-care funding, that may well change.''Reuse content