Approximately five years ago, my 90-year-old stepmother’s cable guy introduced her to his sister because they were both widows, and he said Mom could help his sister out with her wisdom and experience. The sister is 40 years younger than my stepmother and has a history of opioid misuse and gambling. She moved into my stepmother’s home and convinced her to change her will, leaving everything to her, and convinced my stepmother that she is the only one who loves her.
My stepmother was all-in. Her memory, cognition, hearing and health are failing, but she won’t leave her aging home. Any attempt to discuss this with her results in a vicious tantrum. To add to this soap opera, this woman has systematically isolated my stepmother from longstanding friends and family, except for my cousin and me.
We did reach out to the local Adult Protective Services for investigation, and we also talked to an elder-care attorney. Both recommended that my stepmother be moved into assisted living or, at the very least, have a daily licensed care worker visit. My stepmother will have neither. These authorities outlined an action plan, but we’ll have to wait until Mom has a reported hospitalization to carry it out.
“‘My stepmother was all in. Her memory, cognition, hearing and health are failing, and she won’t leave her aging home.’”
The good news is that she did engage the elder-care attorney in a conservator capacity,, and they are actively working with her to fix her will and banking documents, power of attorney, etc., to remove this “friend.” The attorney is also sitting this individual down for an APS “come to Jesus” moment to establish boundaries.
The attorney is also monitoring my stepmother to a reasonable extent. The bad news is that she has welcomed the friend back into her home as a live-in caregiver after kicking her out twice.
The family has no choice but to tolerate this right now. We did install exterior security cameras, because this friend has brought strangers to my stepmother’s home. Cash has also disappeared. My stepmother has paid for the woman’s drug rehab. This friend is actively procuring narcotics and is also giving my stepmother alcohol.
So here is my question: What is my obligation as a stepdaughter if the younger woman fleeces my stepmother out of her hard-earned money while she’s alive?
Right now, she could go into a nice assisted-living facility, but, if this situation continues, she might not be able to. Honestly, our family can’t afford to help her if she’s cleaned out financially, since we’re all in our late 60s and 70s. Her side of the family ignores her. My dad’s side of the family is the only one that has stepped up.
Your final question surprised me. I expected you to ask what more you could do to remove this woman from your stepmother’s house and protect her finances. I understand that you have done a lot already, but if your stepmother’s cognitive health has declined, she should see a family doctor who will decide whether she is able to make financial and medical decisions for herself. If she has changed her will back to its original form, her so-called friend may indeed want cash, a free place to live and whatever else she can get her hands on.
As a stepchild, you do not have a legal responsibility for your stepmother, nor are you legally responsible for her finances. More than two dozen U.S. states have “filial responsibility” laws, which go back to colonial times and — in theory, at least — impose a duty on adult children to support their impoverished parents. Here’s a list of the states that do have those laws, even if they don’t enforce them. (One state did recently use its filial-responsibility law to force an adult child to pay his mother’s debt: In 2012, a Pennsylvania court ruled that John Pittas had to pay his mother’s $93,000 nursing-home bill after she moved to Greece.)
It’s better when an elderly relative signs an enduring power-of-attorney document when that person is of sound mind, but a family member in the state where your stepmother lives can get the legal authority to take over her finances and medical treatment if her finances are being drained by a bad actor — assuming this friend is a bad actor. People do recover from addiction issues, but isolation is a hallmark of elder abuse, so the more you can visit to ensure that she is being taken care of and that her bank accounts or Social Security checks are not being misused, the better.
“Undue influence or elder abuse is normally very difficult to prove, but isolation and control is one of the hallmarks.”
The National Center on Elder Abuse, a government agency affiliated with the U.S. Administration on Aging, and the nonprofit National Adult Protective Services Association also outline further steps you can take, in addition to contacting your stepmother’s primary physician and making an appointment for a physical and mental assessment. Financial institutions have procedures in place for spotting the warning signs of elder abuse — if that is what is happening — and state regulators have in recent years put pressure on advisers to help prevent it.
Undue influence or elder abuse is normally very difficult to prove, but isolation and control is one of the hallmarks. “Isolation is a red flag and many studies of elder abuse say a lack of a good support system and physical and psychological isolation are hallmarks of the problem,” the National Adult Protective Services Association says. And the more people who can keep an eye on an elderly person, the better: Over 90% of reported cases of abuse involve a family member or a trusted caregiver.
There are 1 million cases of elder abuse reported to the National Adult Protective Services Association per year, but that is a small fraction of overall cases. U.S. states are currently working on compiling a database of elder-abuse data. The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that elder abuse lags by as much as two decades behind research into the fields of child abuse and domestic violence.
Enlist a lawyer who specializes in conservatorship and estate law. Ultimately, your stepmother needs allies in her home state who can make in-person visits and help to protect her physical and financial health.
If someone has misused your Social Security number or other personal information, Social Security says it can’t resolve any problems that result. But you can report identity theft and get a recovery plan at IdentityTheft.gov, which is managed by the Federal Trade Commission. You can also call 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338); Telecommunications device for the deaf: 1-866-653-4261.
You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at [email protected], and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.
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