Here is an increasingly common scenario we see in our practice. One family member usually a child, begins assisting, then taking care of and possibly even living with, an elderly parent as the parent’s abilities decline with age. The other children in the family eye the arrangement with suspicion: Is our sister just sponging off of mom or, worse yet, misusing mom’s money for her own benefit? Sometimes these suspicious feelings erupt while mom is still alive, sometimes not until after mom’s death. What the eruption brings about is a lawsuit wherein the “outside” siblings sue the “inside” sibling for Elder Abuse.
From our perspective as the parent’s attorney, we may be aware there is some disharmony in the family or we may not have had any contact with our client for a while. It is the nature of an estate planning practice that most clients complete their estate plans and we don’t hear from them for years at a time. But we do become aware of the problem when the legal battle begins. This doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough and is so destructive when it does happen that I feel the need to offer here a bit of cautionary advice.
Elder financial abuse is a serious matter. It is a particularly heinous offense when committed by a child against a parent, as is undoubtedly sometimes the case. I applaud the siblings who do their best to keep an eye on things for mom’s protection.
On the flip side, though, it is not uncommon to see children who are counting on an inheritance so much that they behave as though mom’s money is their own. It is also not uncommon to see childhood sibling grievances – “Mom always liked you better” – play out in the courtroom.
The end result when these things happen is always a ruined family – no more weddings, graduations, Thanksgivings with the whole family together. I assert that this worst-case scenario can, in many cases, be avoided. It all comes down to, as do most problems among people, a failure of communication.
My advice? Two things:
- If at all possible, have a professional fiduciary to handle an elderly parent’s financial affairs if they are no longer able; and
- Make sure everyone in the family knows everything that’s going on. Share bank statements, bills, receipts and communicate about whatever else you need to in order to have transparency.
These conversations may be difficult to begin, but they could save your family.