Do you have a stubborn aging parent? Are you worried that he or she is doing unsafe or just plain dumb things? You’re not alone. Here at AgingParents.com, we see this scenario often, and it’s frequently about control over the family finances.
Here’s an example, based on a real case with some elements altered for privacy’s sake.
She refuses to give up financial control
The matriarch, Wilma, age 85, decides to move to a high end assisted living facility, due to her physical difficulties. She has lived in her elegant home for 60 years and it is, of course, much more valuable than when she and her husband, now deceased, bought it. Her financial advisor tells her absolutely don’t sell the home! The tax hit will be hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can rent it out and see how the assisted living works out for you. Wait awhile to see how things go, but do not sell it now. It was appropriate advice.
Impulsively, Wilma sells, regardless of the advice. Her adult sons are shocked. Their mom is not making rational financial decisions and this is one of them. This costly mistake will affect them eventually in the form of a reduced inheritance. Not only that, their stubborn mother also impulsively decides she doesn’t want to live in assisted living anymore now and she is going to build a new house instead. She can’t even manage her daily life very well, but she wants to enter into a construction project. Her sons beg her not to do it. She ignores their pleas and goes right ahead. The new house is built. She moves in and can’t remember how to turn on the heat or the dishwasher. And she doesn’t think she needs help at home. Is this a nightmare for her adult children? Absolutely.
What can they do? Their mother sounds pretty good when she talks to anyone but her short-term memory is very poor. Obviously she is not making safe decisions about finances or much else. The sons are both named as successor trustees on their mom’s trust. That means they have the right to take over financial management when their mother either resigns from being trustee or when she is removed. Her sons don’t want to get her enraged with them, lest she disinherit them. They are afraid to act. This is a real dilemma. What can they do?
Options for families facing this problem
Unfortunately there are not many choices for the adult children with a relentlessly stubborn aging parent making terrible decisions. There is no law against stupid decisions! They should try first to persuade their mother to resign from the trust, letting the appointed sons assume responsibility. This takes careful planning and a strategy to appeal to mom’s need to feel in control. We have seen persuasion work at AgingParents.com and the patriarch or matriarch will sometimes agree. If the first effort does not work, sometimes repeated attempts do.
And sometimes the unreasonable elder flatly refuses to give up being the trustee, no matter who asks. Then, one must have the family trust carefully reviewed by a competent attorney to see what it says about removing the trustee. Often it requires a doctor’s letter verifying that the elder no longer has the capacity to safely manage finances independently. This can be very difficult. Sometimes the elder refuses to see a doctor. Sometimes the doctor who is approached refuses to get involved in the question of capacity. The idea that every doctor really knows the patient and would be able to say something cogent about capacity is a concept that is outdated at best, and dangerous at worst. Yet, lawyers keep putting that requirement into trusts, ignoring current reality of the healthcare system. Many trusts even require two doctor’s letters, doubling the heavy burden on worried families. Trusts can be amended before trouble happens! Take a look at your parents’ trust and see what you would need if things got this bad.
The Danger of Waiting
Some families do nothing and wait until the next crisis comes. That can be disastrous, given that the family wealth can be stolen by thieves, ever on the lookout for people like Wilma in this case: wealthy, elderly, poor memory, stubborn and impulsive.
Some families eventually succeed by repeated efforts to get the aging parent to resign. They call in allies and friends. They use every clever means they can contemplate. They use experts to keep persuading. Sometimes, over time, the aging parent finally gives in.
And some families choose doing nothing out of fear of the wrath of the elder. Then, after some dire financial or physical consequence, the elder is decimated. Finally, he or she is too disabled to act and a doctor will ultimately say the patient is incapacitated. By then, major financial loss may have happened, the elder may have had an overwhelming medical emergency or other bad outcome of waiting.
As a last resort, some families choose guardianship. In this choice, the court appoints someone, typically a family member, to take legal control of finances, the person’s safety or both. There is a significant financial and emotional consequence to this, but it can solve the problem of aging parents making escalating, uncontrolled dangerous financial choices. The elder can run out of money, or badly neglect themselves to the point authorities get called in. Guardianship may be at the direction of law enforcement when the elder is in immediate danger. If you consider this prospect, consult an attorney who is very experienced in handling guardianship cases. You can learn the pros and cons and get an opinion as to your chances of success.
- Try persuasion first. The burden falls on family if things go terribly wrong. Ask the elder if they really want to burden their adult kids or others with their memory loss issues.
- Seek legal advice if your aging parent is making dangerous financial decisions. Explore your options before they lose everything.
- Consider guardianship only as a last resort, and only if all other options have failed. Families need to protect aging parents from fraud and undue influence that come with impaired thinking.
Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Attorney, AgingParents.com