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News & Views

Monday, Nov 16, 2015

Financial lives of senior citizens should be made simple

[Source : The Economic Times]

By Uma Shashikant

Mr. Joshi has been a long time reader, following me through the various publications that I have been writing for since 2003. He still sends me long emails. He was a 65-year old retired engineer then, offering consulting services and travelling to client's locations. He is nudging 80 today.

While still active, he rues the fact that his financial life has become very complex. He is a simple investor in the post office, bank deposits and mutual funds, but struggles with one thing or the other. Wealth management for very senior citizens has not received the attention it deserves. How we treat those whose contributions have been in the past is a reflection of the character of a society. We have failed our elders in many respects, and finance is not an exception.

The biggest asset of senior citizens is their time. They read the newspaper in all its detail. They can pore through long forms that others sign without a thought. They can discuss and debate before they make a decision. But not all of them like to spend that time working on their finances.

Sadly, the process of getting financial transactions done takes too much of their time and energy. Instead of offering the 0.5% or 1% higher interest rates, banks could instead offer home services to senior citizens. Phone banking is extremely trying on patience, and Internet banking does not offer comfort. Instead of eager sellers, banks can employ a select team of caring relationship managers who specialise in senior citizen services.

The biggest challenge for senior citizens is technology. While there are some 90-year olds who tweet actively and know how to report a problem to the call centre, many seniors are seriously challenged by smartphones, login protocols and menu choices in today's user interfaces.

There is something very intimidating about dealing with a faceless entity with wide powers. To read the message that an account has been locked since the password was typed wrongly three times over can be quite nerve-wracking for a senior. To assume that elders can learn to use technology easily is to overlook the learning process of the mind that seeks cumulative continuity and assimilation.

Without a comprehensive understanding of how things work, elders are unlikely to be confident about logging into an interface and follow instructions. That is not how they have lived and learned. The benefits a bank or financial entity has earned from technology should be used to cross-subsidise personalised services for the senior citizens.

Everyone hates taxes. Seniors hate it even more, because of the paperwork involved. It does not help that a new class of super-seniors has been identified with a basic exempt slab of Rs 5 lakh. Mr. Joshi has a house in Mumbai and its rent alone will make him a tax paying super-senior. Given the demographic profile of the country and the great pride in India being a "young" country, what could we lose by exempting anyone over 75 from filing returns or paying taxes?

Crooks may find ways to load assets in the name of the elderly in the family, but isn't that a good outcome? I am thinking of wicked aunts who will give way the corrupt sons' assets thus hoarded in her name to charities. Ha!

With technology, one would have assumed that the amount of paperwork would have reduced. Sadly no. There are many who write to me about having to renew the KYC with the bank every three years. The pains of producing the PAN card or facing a large TDS in the fixed deposit; the woes of KYC and in-person-verification for mutual funds; the needless trips to the post office on maturity of deposits; and the nightmare of physical share certificates worth a fortune, but still not converted to demat. After the Aadhar card, there must surely be a simpler way to identify citizens easily?

Why should the elders pay heavily for the failure of the government to put an enabling infrastructure that serves its own purpose in place? A reader pointed out that the benefit to the end-user in all these KYC paperwork processes is virtually nil and that an organisation seeking information for its own compliance needs to fund and facilitate the process with least inconvenience for customers.

The senior citizens I know grapple with these challenges in their own ways, some more risky than they perceive. Many have their accounts tagged along with the wealthier kids' accounts, so they receive service and attention. Some have trusted CAs.

In most cases, there is a relative, friend or trusted servant, who holds everything from the ATM PIN to copies of the documents, and does all the running around either for a fee or out of goodwill. There are innumerable stories of fraud, mostly unreported. While the killing of a senior citizen to steal jewellery receives a lot of media attention, the polishing off the bank balances or siphoning off investments finds no mention.

What can be done to make life easier for super seniors? First, the onus of identifying them and verifying their address should be on the local police. Enabling technology that updates their Aadhar, PAN, KYC and all other identifying documents should be handled by the police and not by the seniors themselves.

Second, paperwork such as tax returns, 15G, 15H, PAN proof and such should be done away with. It is fine to recognise a small group of citizens for their work and allow them the luxury of tax-exempt lives in their senior years. Third, personalised services for financial products should be reintroduced for the benefit of senior citizens, whom the relationship manager will visit, work with and deliver home services.

Fourth, toxic financial products, dubious deposits and complex structures should be banned from being sold to seniors. Wealth management for senior citizens should be subject to a tighter compliance process, where recommendations and performance are monitored to ensure there are no frauds. I wonder if high-powered committees that analyse problems and offer solutions would consider senior citizens and their wealth as a subject worthy of examination?

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