Petty cash (is this even legal version)
September 16, 2023 9:22 AM   Subscribe

I have a sister who is disabled and lives in a privately owned adult family home. I manage her finances. Due to previous theft issues among residents, the residents are not allowed to keep cash on hand. Instead, their cash is kept in a petty cash account that they (theoretically) have access to when they need money.

Each month, I am snail-mailed a statement (I asked if they could e-mail the statements to me, but their response was, "We aren't set up to do that." Ho-hum.) The statement lists in what ways my sister's petty cash was spent. However, there are no source documents attached. The statement just says, for example, "Walmart $40". There is no Walmart sales receipt attached. So how do I know that my sister did, in fact, purchase $40 worth of items?

Am I legally entitled to an actual receipt? Is the way they are managing this petty cash even legal?

A few weeks ago, my sister and I went to the office and asked for her petty cash balance. A staff member told us the bookkeeper was not in, but that the bookkeeper would call my sister the next day to let her know the petty cash balance. The bookkeeper never called my sister.

Later, my sister asked the adult family home's manager what her petty cash balance is, and the manager replied with an extremely vague, "You're fine."

There have been times that my sister requested money from her petty cash, but the money was never given to her.

I did not receive a petty cash statement this month, so I called the adult family home, and the bookkeeper told me she is still working on this month's petty cash statement and that I can stop by the office and pick up a copy of it in a week.

I really want to confront the adult family home management and tell them they need to get their shit together regarding petty cash and that their system is wide open for fraud, but my brother has confronted them in the past regarding other shoddy issues, and they responded, "Well, maybe this isn't the right place for your sister to be living", which was a veiled threat to kick her out. This would be devastating for my sister because (and for the life of me I don't know why) my sister really wants to continue to live there.

I'm inclined to advise my sister to utilize their (horrible) petty cash system just as rarely as possible, and that I will take her shopping and get cash to her whenever she needs it. This would be kind of a bummer for me, though, because part of the reason she lives in an adult family home (and why they get the big bucks) is to relieve some of the care burden from me. It would be nice if the adult family home managed the petty cash in a responsible way so that I wouldn't have to be the one who takes my sisters shopping and manages her money related to shopping ... I mean, that's what the adult family home is for: to help her with things like that.

I would appreciate any advice as to how to manage this issue.
posted by SageTrail to Work & Money (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
IANAL but this sounds shady as fuck in so many ways, I would definitely not rely on this system.

Is there any way you can give her a pre-paid card you can top up? I think most major US banks have a variation of a card you can just load money onto (maybe a small amount per month to cut down on losses if it gets stolen or lost) and then your sister can both retain her agency in her purchases and won't have to use the home's crappy system.
posted by fight or flight at 9:29 AM on September 16 [41 favorites]

Is there an agency supervising the home who you could call? Report them / ask for an audit? I realize this might be unrealistic but I'd be tempted to go over their head. The home management might well be stealing the cash.
posted by M. at 9:39 AM on September 16 [14 favorites]

They have a hostage, and you cannot win a fight with them.

But the change in their behavior lately suggests to me they could rapidly be transitioning from dysfunctional to non-functional, and I would be afraid your sister and the other residents could abruptly find themselves on the street.

I think you should prepare yourself for such an eventuality as best you can.
posted by jamjam at 9:40 AM on September 16 [20 favorites]

There could be a breach of contract issue here, or if they are considered trustees of her funds, a breach of trust, and/or other legal claims. Not legal advice, just speculation. But this may not have much practical effect on how you choose to handle the situation. They surely know they're not handling it properly, and have chosen to ignore this.
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:45 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

It is important to look at this in the context of the overall care of your sister. Is this the hill you want to die on? Is it worth forcing the staff to change their behavior if they also end up hating your sister? Is it worth having the facility shut down if you report it to the authorities and they find problems?

I would look for ways to address the problem that do not involve antagonizing the staff or threatening the facility with external authorities, unless you are very certain that your actions will do more good than harm. Are there any staff members who seem particularly nice, or who seem to care for your sister? Is there anyone there you are on friendly terms with? Is it possible for you take some control of your sister's petty cash needs, buying things for her when she needs them?

Your sister is literally at the mercy of the staff at this facility, every day and every night. You want to keep the big picture in mind, however you address this particular issue.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:20 AM on September 16 [17 favorites]

Why can't you just get her a pre-pay debit card you refill monthly? Skip this problem completely.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:50 AM on September 16 [6 favorites]

It is important to look at this in the context of the overall care of your sister. Is this the hill you want to die on?

This is an important point.

For the last decade of her life, my mother — who had no real cognitive abilities nor memory — lived in a nice-ish assisted-living facility. Theft was a real issue there. Money got stolen. Stuff got stolen. It was frustrating. The staff, of course, blamed residents although I have my doubts. Anyhow, they asked for a similar set-up: We just gave them some cash to cover incidentals.

While it's very possible (likely, even) that this money was not used for its intended purpose, it was a small amount in relative terms and it wasn't worth disrupting my mother's living situation. Things were rough enough for anyhow, and having to move her or involve her in some sort of complicated investigation would have just made things worse. We chose to just accept the ~$250/year as part of her cost of care. I have no regrets about doing this. YMMV.
posted by jdroth at 11:37 AM on September 16 [17 favorites]

Can you possibly either

a) convince management that another way to protect residents' money would be much less trouble for them (I don't know what that would be, though - automatically dispensing cash at certain times? Fingerprint-controlled safes?), or

b) give your sister some petty cash for the household's system, and some for her to hold on to, and you coach her how to keep it secure, with the understanding that it might get stolen?

And possibly:
Get your sister to put receipts into a special locked box that you provide?

Create accounts with some stores/restaurants/etc. where she likes to go, so she doesn't need cash for those?
posted by amtho at 1:57 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

After reading this, I concur with others that you probably at BEST aren't going to get anywhere with these people, it is a hostage situation, and at worst she gets kicked out. Making them shape up and getting into a war over it may not be worth the money loss. I don't know what authorities you could go to to "make" them keep track, but I think this is a war that your sister may not want picked for her if it gets her kicked out. They sound shady to me, but good situations are hard to find.

I would just take her shopping if it was me. I'm not sure if the prepaid card idea would work or not if they are concerned about people stealing that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:35 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]

I imagine this adult family home is licensed in some way so you need to contact the licensing agency to report your misgivings. I would also see if your state has an ombudsman office for long term care, like this one.

Threats of retaliation, not providing itemized statements are all huge red flags.
posted by brookeb at 6:03 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]

Maybe you could give the care home a credit/gift card to use on your sister's behalf. My aunt was in a similar home, they were lovely, but not business people. Being bad at keeping petty cash records could indicate that they're busy. You could also just fund it at 20/ week and consider it part of the cost.

If you and your sister are happy with the care, that's worth quite a bit. I think your frustration and concern are completely justified, but if your sister wants to be there, it may not be worth a fight.
posted by theora55 at 6:19 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

How are these shopping trips happening? Do they take multiple residents out on group trips and then pay for everyone's items together? (I'm trying to think of some quasi-legit reason they might not provide receipts, or that prepaid solutions might not work.) Is there any chance your sister is able to ask for receipts herself at the time of purchase?

Does your sister have a smartphone? If so, would she be able to use a virtual wallet on that?

Where is she spending her money - is it all things like Walmart or are there also smaller mom-and-pop places? Sometimes at smaller places, especially if she's a regular, you can set up some kind of system with the owners where they can keep a running tab for your sister, and you either prepay or postpay. You'd need to trust them too, but hopefully they're trustworthy.

You've probably tried asking these guys for receipts, but it's not in the description. If not, in between doing nothing and all-out confrontation there's a sort of gentle "hey, sometimes my sister asks for money but she doesn't get it..." (which is probably the battle worth fighting more than receipts). So if you haven't done that, I know they have a history of stonewalling and giving untrustworthy answers, but it still might make them a little more careful. (Even if they deny that it ever happens, you just say "sure, of course, it's just important to me that she have this independence...")
posted by trig at 10:29 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

The 'Walmart-$40' thing had my spidey senses tingling straight away - they are clearly not keeping any track of the money beyond your sister saying 'I want $40 to go shopping at Walmart'. Exactly $40 spent?

The very idea of forcing adults to hand over fiscal responsibility for what amounts to pocket money is appalling and very much at odds with the principles of responsible care for people with disabilities. There doesn't seem to be any accountability for staff and I bet the reason they've been delayed in getting you the 'statements' is that the system is falling apart and they can't reconcile the amounts they have with what they should have. If they can't keep track of it properly, she would be better off having some stolen every now and then. More importantly, she deserves to have as much independence as possible and control of spending is often very important to people - taking that control away is one of the most common forms of abuse of people with disabilities, as it is in domestic violence situations.

You could give her a debit card or a pre-paid credit card to use for her shopping and just leave a small balance with the home or take a bit out occasionally. You could also just give her some cash and tell her to be careful, but she'd then be breaking the 'rules' and you don't want to create problems for her.

If staying at this particular place is important enough for your sister, then you may have to accept that she's going to lose at least some portion of any spending money to this 'system'. It may well be worth that extra cost for her piece of mind. You ask if this is even legal - I don't know about where you live, but it definitely violates the principles of care here. People have the right to autonomy and that has been taken away from your sister.
posted by dg at 5:25 PM on September 17 [3 favorites]

You may not have a right to sales receipts, but your sister certainly does.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:03 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

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