Elderly mother's finances. Help.
December 6, 2013 7:53 PM   Subscribe

I've written before about my elderly mom's dementia. This is less about her memory problems (and mine dealing with them) and more about a sticky financial situation she's in, thanks to my stepsister. You are not my lawyer, but legal advice would be welcome. Prepare for flurries, inside.

My mom has been married to Barry for over 40 years, since they were both 54. For most of their married life, Mom has been in charge of paying their bills from a joint account into which Barry deposited his Social Security checks. This is not his only money or income (he is quite wealthy), it's just the part of it Mom always had control of for their household expenses. She could spend it any way she liked, and she managed it very well.

They have been in assisted living now for about a year and a half. Barry's daughter, my stepsister (we'll call her Jane), has his power of attorney. I have my mother's power of attorney. My stepsister pays their rent at the facility, his medical bills, and who knows what all, from Barry's "other" money, according to an arrangement made before they moved. She also sold Harry's house and has all of the proceeds. There was no change made to the joint account when they moved - it was still supposed to be for Mom's use, to pay for incidentals. I arranged, with Mom's and the bank's help, to get online access to that account so that I could take over paying the bills that Mom used to pay, because she is forgetful. Meanwhile, Barry's dementia has gotten much worse. He is basically out of the picture as far as any of this is concerned.

Last July, my stepsister asked me if it would be OK with Mom to move Barry's Social Security deposit to an account that Jane controls. After asking Mom, I told her absolutely, emphatically, it would NOT be okay. She did it anyway. Mom is very upset about this and says that Barry would never have agreed to such a thing - he has always maintained that his SS money was meant to be for her use.

Since I have not been able to convince my stepsister to undo this, I have recently started sending her the bills that I was paying from that account. It seems to me that if she gets the income, she should pay the bills. Jane said if Mom needs money, she can ask Jane for an allowance. My mom finds the idea of asking Jane for an allowance humiliating, so I asked Jane to either send me a monthly check for $500 that I will deposit for Mom, or deposit it to the joint account every month. I also asked her to reimburse my mother for the roughly $6,500 paid from that account since Jane stopped the SS deposit. This arrangement would still leave Jane getting the lion's share of the SS check, but it would be better than nothing.

My stepsister has refused. It is not a question of need on her part, since the house money alone is enough to cover all living expenses for the two of them for years to come - surely for longer than they will live (they're 95).

The situation is fraught, needless to say. Since my stepsister controls the money, she makes all decisions about our parents' living situation unilaterally. Lately she moved them out of their large three-room apartment and into separate studio apartments in the facility, very much against their wishes. I now understand why it needed to happen, after talking to the facility director, but neither I nor my mother was consulted about this move until after it was decided, when my stepsister demanded that I drop everything to come back there and move my mother out of her home, away from her husband, into a single room, and sell her furniture. I could not comply because this is my employer's busiest quarter and I cannot take any time off until January. My stepsister has never worked outside the home, so I guess that never occurred to her. So because I could not come, and Mom couldn't understand, and Jane did not bother to explain to her, Mom spent several days being extremely upset and disoriented, and she could not call me because Jane neglected to set up a long-distance carrier for Mom's new phone. Mom is furious and not speaking to Jane. I am furious on Mom's behalf. Something needs to be done, but what?

My question is whether I have any legal recourse. Can I force my stepsister to take on the bills that were paid from this account (mostly medical stuff) and to reimburse Mom for the bills paid after the deposits were stopped? Is there any way that I can get Barry's SS deposit put back in Mom and Barry's joint account? I am in Denver and they are all in or near Peoria. Is this something that I can take to small claims court in Illinois to settle?
posted by caryatid to Grab Bag (6 answers total)
You definitely should consult the eldercare attorney who set up your POA and make sure it covers financial things and is sound in every way. If you do not have an eldercare attorney, get one right away. These arrangements sound pretty wobbly, I'm afraid.

What did the facility require for financial documents for your mother? Do you have in written form Barry's declaration about his SS account and their mutual and non-mutual assets?

When you see the eldercare attorney, ask him or her to line up everything needed in case your Mom suddenly must be financially estranged from his support (applying for Medicaid, etc). Have every piece of your mom's financial info sent directly to you and keep meticulous records abot anything you pay for from your money or hers.

My mother has dementia and is in assisted living on Medicaid and it is tricky enough when it is just the two of us involved. This situation sounds very sticky and you must do everything you can to make some clear, documented, and just arrangements.

Good luck!
posted by Riverine at 8:07 PM on December 6, 2013

My question is whether I have any legal recourse.

First, I am sorry this situation is happening.

I am a lawyer but certainly not yours, and you will find this message does not contain legal advice but legal information. Your question explicitly asks for legal advice and if you have legal recourse. No one here can do that. A power of attorney can be drafted in any number of ways. Asking, "I have a power of attorney. What are my rights?" is much like asking, "I have a will. What are my rights?" It depends on what the document says and your jurisdiction's law. If you want to explore what legal resource you may have (if you have any recourse at all), you need to consult with an Illinois lawyer. The most appropriate choice would be an elder law attorney, most likely. Whatever lawyer you consult with take either take your case (if there is a case) or refer you to the appropriate lawyer who can.

What I can say is that there is no way this is a small claims issue, but your lawyer will tell you that if you retain one. Small claims is for small debts or neighbor disputes, not for these sort of fiduciary issues.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:08 PM on December 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

This is a horrible situation to be in, and far too common. Siblings, stepsiblings, whatever the case are often at odds about how to care for elderly patients regardless of dementia issues, and proximity and, frankly, personal financial interest -- whether morally justified or not -- cloud decision-making. I can only underline what Tanizaki has said, that you need an Illinois attorney, and now. You are unable to advocate properly for your mother's needs without one.

More broadly I will state now that with some critical things already having happened you're dealing with de facto (real, practical) outcomes as much as de jure (legal), and you may have to settle for defending more complicated issues such as your mother's quality of life, versus things that you think should be certain ways.

I'm sorry this is happening to you.
posted by dhartung at 8:14 PM on December 6, 2013

It depends on what the document says and your jurisdiction's law.

Very much this. I had a couple-three different POAs for my mom, set up for different circumstances and covering different things (medical, financial). Here's the mefi wiki page on how to find a lawyer, which may be helpful.
posted by rtha at 8:15 PM on December 6, 2013

Best answer: this is not legal advice, i don't know the first thing about illinois law, but i can tell you how it might play out in california...

jane is in the catbird seat for now, but your mom has some options which she should explore with a family law/elder law attorney. spouses have the duty to support each other, and this duty can be enforced by court order. 40 years of marriage tilts the equities strongly in your mom's favor. the judge might be displeased to hear about jane's unilateral separation of this couple. if illinois is a community property state, some of barry's wealth would likely belong to your mom by now. courts can order the financially stronger party to pay the attorney fees of the weaker party. it would be an awful shame if, due to jane's predatory actions, a process server had to drop papers on her demented daddy, now, wouldn't it? there is no reason at all why your mom should go begging to jane every month for an allowance when a lawyer could restore her dignity.

looking ahead to when barry dies, in some states a spouse cannot be entirely disinherited in a will, they can elect to take a statutory share against the will, and the social security survivor's benefit would go directly to your mom. i assume that jane has done her best to sew up the will, but the fact that she has never worked outside the home suggests that she might lack the sophistication to do this effectively.

i am sorry that you are going through this. my step-grandmother screwed my mom out of her inheritance, but it was such a piddling sum, and my mom was such a kindhearted soul that she rejected my offer to sue the malefactor on her behalf.
posted by bruce at 1:43 AM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

When you consult with an Illinois lawyer, as you should, you will want to ask about the laws in that state which obligate a spouse to support his or her spouse. His daughter is essentially removing the support that he had customarily provided her. This page is the public "find an attorney" resource for the National Association of Elder Law Attorneys.
posted by yclipse at 2:50 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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