When your aging parent is no longer able to keep track of bills, investments and money
management, someone else must step in. Often the parent has appointed an adult child or other
relative to do the job. It can be a lifesaver or it can create explosive conflict and unnecessary costs.
Here are mistakes we see at AgingParents.com and we hope you will avoid them.
Mistake #1: Failure to communicate.
Most aging parents do not want to give up control. They have appointed someone to be the agent as
Power of Attorney and/or they have appointed a successor trustee. But when it comes time for that
person to take over, there is resistance and sometimes hostility from the aging parent. If your aging
loved one is declining and doesn’t realize it or won’t admit it, be respectful. Keep all explanations
simple. Offer to pay bills first as this is often an area where failure to keep track might be recognized
somewhat by the elder. Break the news gently that you will be helping out. Don’t sneak or do this
without saying anything. You may get pushback but you are doing the job you are required to do and
resistance must not stop you. An impaired parent can be ruthlessly ripped off by unscrupulous
people if you do not take over financial management. Don’t give up because Mom or Dad doesn’t like
the idea of losing complete independence.
Mistake #2: Going to your aging parents’ bank with only that Power of Attorney
document with your name on it and expecting it will go smoothly with just that.
Most banks are required to report suspicious activity that could harm a customer. They are supposed
to watch out for financial elder abuse. Since the Power of Attorney (POA) is a revocable document,
the bank officer does not know if the elder was manipulated into signing it and it is a ticket to steal or
if it is legitimate. They sometimes want the elder to sign the bank’s own POA document. But if your
aging parent is “out of it” and that’s why you are taking over financial management, the elder may be
not legally capable of signing another POA document. The bank will likely want some proof that your
aging parent is incapacitated. In my experience, they like letters from doctors verifying this fact. If
you can get a doctor’s letter of incapacity, take it with your POA to the bank if you want results.
Mistake #3: Failure to look at your aging parent’s trust to see how it defines
You need to know who can legally take over if your aging loved one becomes incapacitated for
finances. You need to know how your aging parents’ trust defines incapacity and how it is
determined. Different lawyers draft these trusts in widely different ways, using software. We see
appalling lack of creativity in trusts defining what to do when the successor, who may be YOU, must
take over responsibility as trustee. Lawyers’ failure to anticipate difficult scenarios can create a
nightmare for families. The estate planner must address what to do if your aging parent becomes
cognitively impaired and refuses to a doctor to get examined on the question of capacity for finances.
In many cases, the requirement of getting not just one, but two doctors to say, in writing, that a
person is incapacitated for finances is built into the trust. It cannot be changed after the person
becomes incapacitated. That is exceptionally dangerous because many doctors are reluctant to get
involved in a legal question of incapacity. They won’t give you that letter you need. Further, there
may be several specialists who treat medical conditions for your aging parent. All see your elder
briefly. They do not have sufficient information to make a knowledgeable statement about incapacity
and they too decline to give you a letter of incapacity about your aging parent. You can be really stuck
if this happens.
Cognitively impaired elders are free to do whatever foolish things with their money that occur to
them for as long as you as potential successor trustee do not have the “proof” of incapacity the trust
or POA may require to get your impaired loved one off the trust. There are ways to avoid this!
One thing you can do early on is to have a conversation with your aging loved one to discuss the
“worst case scenario” of becoming impaired. Do this proactively, perhaps at the time of retirement. I
suggest not saying “if you ever got dementia”. That triggers fear in many people and can end the
conversation. They believe it will never happen to them. It is a better strategy to suggest that you
need to know what would happen if they got bonked on the head in an accident. Say how you would
want to protect them.
Although many aging parents are secretive about their finances, it is worth a try to get them to
discuss how their estate plan addresses the issue of becoming incapacitated to manage finances. Ask
to see the trust if your relationship with your aging parent is open and congenial. Ask for permission
to speak with their estate planning attorney, assuming they have one. With permission, you can meet
with the lawyer with your aging parent to find out what is written in this part of everyone’s trust. If
the trust says the parent needs to be declared incapacitated by two physicians, that can spell extreme
difficulty for you, the possible successor trustee. If your parent is still fully competent, when you
meet with the lawyer, that particular phrasing can be amended so that you have a safer and more
workable solution for this issue if it arises in the future.
Planning ahead like this and you having clear information about worst case scenarios is crucial to
managing a parent’s possible decline successfully. Pre-emptive action can avert the disasters created
by poorly drafted estate planning documents in aging parents’ trusts and power of attorney
assignments. At AgingParents.com, we see these disasters frequently. The “two doctor letters”
requirement in trusts does not do what some lawyers think it will do—protect the client. Instead, it
backfires and creates an expensive obstacle that families may have to spend money to go to court to
We all need to face the prospect of potential loss of ability to safely and independently manage
finances. Mot people do need some help with money matters as they age. When the legal paperwork
is well done, everyone is better protected.
If you are facing this issue, get strategy with compassion at AgingParents.com. Ask for an
introductory call today, 866-962-4464.
Find out how we can assist or where to go so you can keep
your aging loved ones safe.
Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, RN, Attorney, AgingParents.com