Angling Sibling, Aging Parents
March 3, 2017 9:37 AM   Subscribe

My sister has some sort of personality disorder. I don't know if she's on the narcissist/borderline/histrionic spectrum, but something like that. Though she could demonstrably control herself with her friends, she never had any compunction about letting loose with the family. Once I grew up and left the state, I've had ever less contact with her, to the point of none at all for the last three years. Fast forward to today: My parents' health is declining fast, and the way they've set up their affairs, I fear they've yoked me to her for years to come. Please advise.

All of our growing up years, Martha was in constant hysterics, and full of lots of self-inflicted drama she'd then spew back out onto the family. The "walking on eggshells" cliche was true in our household. Holidays were especially draining. Sometimes her wrath was aimed at me, sometimes at my parents. Once she had a family of her own, she directed nearly all of it at her oldest, and now heroin-addicted, child.

Because of her temperament, the relationship between my parents and Martha, aged 55, who we'll call Martha here, has waxed and waned over the years. There have been long stretches when relations were strained or they haven't spoken at all, even though they only live a few miles apart. But on the whole, it's been cordial, and my parents have made a big effort to be warm and supportive, even while fully acknowledging that there's something wrong with her, to the point that What Are We Going to Do About Martha? was a recurrent theme between my parents and their friends all of my growing up years.

Like a lot of well-meaning people, my parents have also long been enablers. For something like 20 years, they partially supported my sister's family by providing her carpenter/handyman husband, who we'll call Ted, with $10-12 thousand dollars of work a year. Without my parents, Martha and Ted would have long since gone broke. This might have finally forced them out of the tiny town where my sister insisted they live, but which never offered enough work to support them. Had they moved some place larger, or back to her husband's hometown where he had connections, they could have supported themselves much more easily. My sister also did not work during almost the entirety of their marriage.

In fact, she only recently started working again, after her husband, who is older, started taking partial social security when he couldn't find any work at all during the recession. It was during that period that my father who has a private work space in a barn on a property adjacent to my parents' house agreed to let my sister's husband share the space with him. Ted was thrilled, but he told my father that he thought the place could use some fixing up. Well, the fix-up plans quickly doubled in cost, so much so that two people my parents have known for 40 years a piece each confided to my parents that Ted was long known as a cheat and a huge pothead within the local community.

Apart from the sudden spike in costs, my father visited the barn one day only to see that the whole place looked like it had been ransacked—and a security rail to the upstairs had been loosened to the point where if he'd tried to use it, it could have killed him. I have this information not only from both parents, but from one of the aforementioned friends, as well as another friend of something like 20 years. As a result, my parents got a little scared. So they changed the locks to the barn and their home, to send the message that whatever had happened there wasn't going to happen again, and it didn't.

After locks got changed, Martha and Ted barely spoke to my parents for the next several years, and since Ted wasn't working, Martha started helping out the elderly for extra money. To her credit, she has always excelled in certain kinds of caretaking and domestic arts. She can be highly organized and extremely efficient if she wants. I gather she has even gone so far as to become an elderly advocate of some sort, and my mother reports her hourly rate is quite high for that region.

Meanwhile my parents were getting more and more frail, and both are barely mobile at this point. They are also in their mid-80s. Finally, when one ended up in the hospital, Martha reappeared, and started getting a bit more involved. Then things picked up speed about six weeks ago when my mother couldn't stop falling, and also ended up in the hospital. She came swooping in, and started visiting doctors with her, put her in rehab, rearranged the house to create a downstairs bedroom, got security alerts for both parents and on and on.

I haven't a single complaint about the kind of caretaking Martha has been doing. She's even picked up on some of the more out-there devices I have suggested by email might improve my parents mobility, and brought it up with their doctors. I'm a very involved daughter myself, and not only do I call the parents regularly, but I, too, have gone to appointments with them in the past, as well as regularly sent them things I thought might be useful, researched medications, etc. What bothers me is that Martha had agreed to help address some of the parents' health issues several years ago with me, and then bailed. A lot of what I asked her to do then, she is doing now.

Since none of that can be helped now, it wouldn't be worth mentioning if it weren't for the way my parents set up their estate. My father worked in government, let's say, for all of his career. He never made big money, but both parents were crackerjack with the stock market, and property, and nearly everything they own, including countless collectables, are now valuable. Where I would have eternally avoided the issue, my parents have been very grown up. They have trusts, and wills, and lawyers. It's very important to them to leave their children something because their parents weren't able to leave them anything. They were also among the few people they knew who could afford to retire, so they've talked for years now about leaving us something to ensure our retirement. They even made a big point of taking us to visit their lawyer to talk about this stuff. I had no questions; Martha immediately asked how soon she could sell after inheriting.

About four years ago, I was staying with my parents for an extended period of time, and they spent a huge chunk of it giving me little tours detailing what all the different objects were worth. I kept telling them to write down their preferences, that I was never going to remember, that I wanted everything to be their decision, and that I didn't want any negotiation with Martha. These decisions were theirs. Well, rather than detail it all legally, which my mother said was impossible, as there is so much stuff, they arranged for the estate to have four trustees: their lawyer, Martha, me, and one of these older trusted friends.

During various parental hospital bouts recently, Martha has pressured the non-hospitalized parent to give her full Power of Attorney (POA) over finances and health, just in case, and further that it was impractical to need the consent of four trustees to make a decision. I told each parent they didn't need to make any POA decisions in the middle of a crisis. In terms of everyday help, I also said I didn't think she was trustworthy, but it was up to them. My father said very firmly that she was their choice for everyday help, so at least I know they thought it through.

But then more ill health came up again, and Martha twice more made a bid for full POA. When I talked to my mother about it, she seemed to be a bit confused about the whole thing, and was convinced Martha was just talking about Health POA, when in fact Martha had clearly said she wanted Health and Financial POA, and that her daughter thought it was a good idea, too.

When the lawyer caught wind of all this, he said a health-only directive was more appropriate, but I didn't know what that meant. So I wrote to ask more questions, and then later spoke to my mother. She immediately told me not to worry, I'd still get all my money, which was a very out of character thing for her to say! Then I got a defensive email from my sister, saying POAs were no big deal, so why ask the attorney. A few days later, I actually spoke to Martha for an update on the mother's health. In the course of the conversation, she outlined, again, why she should have full Health and Financial POA, because the lawyer was never around, I live in the City, and the friend is getting forgetful. She also mentioned the incident with the barn, and made out that it had all been about my parents' crazy. I changed the subject, and the conversation was pleasant enough, but I realized even while it was happening that I was being manipulated.

Meanwhile, I'm now pushing 50, work in an impoverished art field which doesn't exist outside my somewhat faraway City, and have never made a penny, and don't even have much in social security coming to me. I'm also single. While my parents are of sound mind, I have no worries about Martha. But if there are plugs, I can't say for sure she wouldn't pull one. If something happened to both parents, or even now with them not using the upstairs, I could also see stuff following her home. I want to keep my parents healthy and safe, I don't want to feel cheated or stupid, I don't want drama or trauma. I fear I may be powerless on all counts.

It's worth saying I was married to a less hysterical but still probably disordered guy some years back. There was property. He cheated, he took me to court, he lied about his affairs under oath, and I lost everything. I can't do that over again. Like him, my sister is also an emotional bully, and has a poor character. Ironically, both my Ex and Martha read as extremely upright, so that concerns me, too.

I'm not looking for counseling recommendations. I'm looking for practical suggestions, maybe the odd practical (rather than pop) self-help book, relevant anecdotes, smart insights. I want peace, fairness, and a good long life for my parents. But I feel like all signs of disaster are pending. Please help.

Thanks for reading such a long ask.
posted by Puppetry for Privacy to Human Relations (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You need a counselor, but the legal kind, not the psychological kind. Look for an estate attorney in your area, ask for an appointment to talk about the issue, and ask what kind of retainer they would request to help you handle your role as trustee. Are you all four equal power trustees? Is there one primary executor?

You could talk about all this with the attorney who's also named a trustee, but it might not be as useful as your own. That attorney works for your parents, not you. Having a legal opinion from someone who works for you would be very valuable. Just at least ask, and figure out if an initial retainer might be in the realm of possibility for your budget.

I'm sorry you're dealing with this.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:32 AM on March 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

You and your sister should share health POA; your parent's attorney should be their financial POA. Make this happen while your parents are still of sound mind.
posted by Aha moment at 10:34 AM on March 3, 2017 [11 favorites]

You have to decide what you want out of this, both financially and in regards to your relationships, and decide how much you're willing to go through for either of those things.

It's abundantly clear you neither respect or like your sister. But also that maybe you're not at peace with that fact, for example: I haven't a single complaint about the kind of caretaking Martha has been doing ... In terms of everyday help, I also said I didn't think she was trustworthy

What are you trying to prevent/accomplish? I would start there. Are you worried that she will use the POA to drain the bank accounts and cut you out of the will... because that's not likely even if she wanted to. If your parents grant her POA those can be scaled and controlled so even if she has financial POA it wouldn't necessarily give her powers over all their assets.

But the lawyer is the much more obviously choice for financial POA and your sister as the local child and primary care taker is a logical choice for health POA. If you cringe at that thought... what is the better option?

Spending a few hours with an estate attorney of your own would help a great deal.
posted by French Fry at 10:37 AM on March 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Agree with all the suggestions above and would add to them the following:

1. Get your parents an appointment with a social worker. They need to talk through these arrangements with a neutral party and not feel caught up in any sibling drama. If you call your local senior services or department of aging they can help you with a referral.

2. You might want to find a lawyer who specializes in elder law to sit down with your parents and their attorney. Someone with this specialty can help navigate all the various contingencies that need to be planned for and provide neutral advice. This person is a supplement to your parents' existing lawyer and not a substitute.
posted by brookeb at 11:31 AM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

RE: What are you trying to prevent/accomplish?

I fear so many levels of doom here, I couldn't even figure out how to edit down the ask! I don't think I buried the lede, but like a lot of people with disordered family members, I've ended up partnering with people who are disordered in their own special way, without realizing it. When there was a fight over property, I ended up indigent and seriously traumatized, for no good legal reason. So being drawn back into anything with anyone with similar propensities panics me. She rationalizes everything and seems to have no sense of right and fair. I'm also starting to be terrified of getting sick, or dying dirt-poor. I'm also really close to my parents....

When I say no money, I mean no money. Like how could I find a pro bono estate attorney?

Thanks everyone for your help and good wishes so far. I welcome as many answers as anyone wants to give.
posted by Puppetry for Privacy at 11:33 AM on March 3, 2017

They even made a big point of taking us to visit their lawyer to talk about this stuff.

Can you talk to this lawyer again? I'm assuming they made the estate plan pretty clear, and now they may be able to tell you how easy or hard it would be for your sister to use financial POA or other means to drain the estate.

Your assessment that she is trying to take advantage of the situation is probably not completely off, and I doubt that any lawyer is going to be surprised to learn someone is acting that way.
posted by BibiRose at 12:12 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

You say you live in a City--does that City have a law school? There might be a pro bono clinic where you could get advice.
posted by orrnyereg at 12:30 PM on March 3, 2017

For reasons, I know exactly where you are.
First of all, you need to have informal (off the record) talks with the lawyer and the trusted friend. Be totally honest with them about your worries and also be fair about your recognition of your sister's good work. I'd be surprised if you are charged for this.
If they don't know about the history of your brother in-law, tell them.
Say that your suggestion is that you and your sister get joint POA for health and lawyer + trusted friend get POA for finance. Underline that you are willing to help care for your parents the best you can within your circumstances, and that you are not angling for POA as such, but mean to be ready to step in if your sister is not able for some reason.

From personal experience and talking with friends, I believe that the lawyer and trusted friend will know what you are talking about and will be willing and able to help you.

Whatever happens, do the honorable thing. This will consolidate your support (even if it doesn't always look that way), and help you long term. A very direct example of this is that I too was asked to help draw up a detailed inventory and refused, which much later on was seen by the lawyers as an indication of my fairness and commitment to the entire family. I also payed back my debt to the estate with my part of the inheritance even while I could easily just have hidden the documents from my siblings and cashed in the whole sum. This came in handy when two of my siblings challenged the will, and my parent's lawyers supported me.

And when you have done all this, take a deep breath. This should be good.

For very worst case scenarios (didn't happen to me, but to a dear friend), make sure that lawyer keeps you updated on every suggested change to trusts/wills. If something like that seems to be going on, you may need to lawyer up or camp at your parents' house or both. I don't think it will, it happened to my friend because there was a gold-digging step-parent involved.
posted by mumimor at 12:33 PM on March 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

I also suggest you talk to their lawyer again and make sure he's aware of the situation and your parent's current health situation. Your sister's excuse to you was the lawyer is "never around." So you could talk to the lawyer about that kind of concern - how soon would financial decisions need to be made, are there other people he works with who would step in if lawyer was out of town, etc. That's likely a bogus concern and we know that, but maybe you can find a way to counter it effectively in the event that she tries to bring it up again as a reason to change the POA.
I think there's a lot of history with your sister wrapped up in this situation and it's understandably causing you extra anxiety. She is, however, the person who is currently helping your parents and they have chosen her to be their caregiver. It sounds like they've found a way to come to a resolution with her, weird, scary barn stuff and all. All of the details about your divorce and your finances are not relevant to their estate. I know it's adding to your anxiety and I empathasize, but I also think you shouldn't bring it up in any conversations with your family or the lawyer or trustees. It's not relevant to your parents' needs or their estate.
posted by areaperson at 12:40 PM on March 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

This might sound woefully inadequate but I think you should make a list of the bad things that you think your sister might be doing and what action you should take around those things.

Like, you seem to be hinting at the idea that your sister or brother-in-law could actually kill your parents or take steps to hasten their deaths. If this is something you seriously think might happen, you need to talk to a domestic violence hotline and/or the police. If you don't really think this is happening, let it go and don't let it be some kind of fantasy that feeds into your dramatic relationship with your sister.

If you think your sister is pilfering stuff from the upstairs of the house (it happened in my family), go, visit, take some photos even if you can't do a full inventory.

If you think that your sister is going to unduly influence your parents to change their will, talk to their lawyer about that.

Identify the things you're afraid of happening, and one at a time think about what actions you can take to mitigate the risks of those actions.

And practice whittling your story down to the absolute essentials/basics - separate out what you need to talk through with a friend or therapist and what you need to talk about with a lawyer. Right now you have A LOT of thoughts and feelings about all of this but I think you will be able to get more done if you can separate out historically upsetting things from things that are relevant here and now.
posted by mskyle at 1:57 PM on March 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

While my parents are of sound mind, I have no worries about Martha. But if there are plugs, I can't say for sure she wouldn't pull one.

This is what living wills and healthcare directives are for. If you have some reason to believe your parents would want different treatment than your sister would choose for them, they need to put their wishes in writing. There are many people who would choose the more 'heartless' child as their health care proxy exactly because that child would not agonize over the decision to keep them alive or free them from suffering. They may or may not think that way, but they do not have to trust her to be selfless in order to trust her to do what they need.

It will also not necessarily help much to have the two of you listed as co-equal decision makers when a crisis comes, although it won't hurt and is obviously fine to do if it helps your peace of mind. In my own experience, my mother had to list one of us first and the other one second, but in practice, if a hospital needs a decision NOW and one person doesn't answer their phone, they'll be calling that second number right away, not waiting for the first one to call back. And next of kin may be permitted to make some life or death decisions even without any official POA designations. I am not happy about this but it happens.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:57 PM on March 3, 2017

It's worth saying I was married to a less hysterical but still probably disordered guy some years back. There was property. He cheated, he took me to court, he lied about his affairs under oath, and I lost everything. I can't do that over again.

I don't understand what you mean here. Are you relying on your parents right now for financial support? I get that you are worried that Martha will make off with all the money, not to mention the more priceless items that you had hoped to inherit from your parents, but do you benefit from that money now? Were you counting on getting that money?

I agree that your feelings about reaching the end of your life sick and indigent have to be separated from the legal issues, as painful as they are. This situation is touching a lot of trigger points that you can't afford to let get in the way if you want to make the end of your parents' lives as happy, comfortable, and legally carefree as possible.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:14 PM on March 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I share your concern, I've lost 2 inheritances due to conniving women. Some thoughts: get your parent's thoughts on video now when they don't have dementia issues. All of it - the worries about the BIL, what exactly they want to happen to their estate. Is there any way they would just divide it know for example house to you stocks to sister?
I really hate to say this because I do the same thing but you should not have gotten yourself into this situation - to depend on inheriting. Let you and me be examples for young people who read this - don't depend on inheriting as your retirement plan.
It's not too late for you to do something - downsize where you are living - I LOVE tiny houses! or take a second job - to work toward retiring independently.
It is so good that you can talk about this with your mom. Why not say to her - I screwed up - I counted on inheriting as part of my retirement and now I am worried my sister will ruin that. I don't want to come between you and my sister. What can we do?
You are so far ahead of the game in that you can talk to your mom about this!
It is no surprise to me that your sister has chosen caregiving as a career because that is a very good way for con artists to meet easy marks (people who have dementia). And I have been a caregiver so it really pains me to say that but it is the truth. In her case it is a red flag.
I'm sure that the lawyer would love the video idea and he should be there or some other third neutral party. And don't let anyone tell you the lawyer is too busy. This is your life! My experience tells me you have very real fears. But I think you are dealing with this at the right time so I think you are going to be OK.
posted by cda at 6:22 PM on March 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

There seems to me three issues that are somewhat conflated here:

1) You dislike your sister.

2) Your sister is manipulating your parents and you feel that it is unjust that they have enabled her for so long.

3) You are depending on your parents for your inheritance as your social security.

For (1): That's fine. You are a grown adult and you can like or dislike your siblings.

For (2): Your parents are grown up and independent (for now), and however it pains you, they have every right to support your sister in whatever form they want. Sure it's not fair (trust me, I know), but you have to make peace with it because those are the choices they have chosen for themselves. As for caretaking, it appears that Martha has been doing the day-to-day caretaking. Even though she may not always have been the perfect caretaker in the past, she appears to be doing a good caretaking job now. Do not underestimate the emotional labour that is involved in taking care of parents and being local for them. It is worth more than you think. I live far away from my mother, and everyday I am grateful for my brother for living near her so that he can deal with any of her needs. Remote caring is not the same.

The financial POA is a scary thing, and you should alert your parents of this. But, this brings us on to number (3)

For (3): I understand that you have no money and that you work in an impoverished art field. But this does not mean you are entitled to a penny of your parents' money. However rich or poor you are, it should not matter. And, if you are this financially stretched that you cannot find a lawyer and that you are depending on your parents' inheritance for your retirement plans, then you should think carefully about your work choices. Instead of focusing your energies on what Martha may or may not do, you could look for a better paying career in a field that may not be as fun or enjoyable, but will pay your bills and leave you less dependent on what your parents choose to do with their money. I agree with one of the posters above: you should not have to depend on inheriting.
posted by moiraine at 10:20 AM on March 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks for all of your good advice and empathy. You have given me a lot of good ideas on how to proceed, and I appreciate it. I also appreciate the comments on entitlement and planning for retirement, but I actually didn't give almost any information on that part of my history. Something like half of all Americans won't be able to retire, and it's not because all those folks are irresponsible, wouldn't retrain, relocate, or work more than one job. But that's just a small point. Thanks again.
posted by Puppetry for Privacy at 7:01 PM on March 4, 2017

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