Aging Parents, Money, and Siblings: Thinking Ahead

They say “Money is the root of all evil.”
(I won’t go there.)

What we do know–is that bad feelings among siblings, because of money, are common after parents have died, especially if the siblings have been kept in the dark about their inheritance. From Great-grandmother’s sugar bowl, to thousands–even untold millions of dollars (think: the Astors), families quarrel over money.

But that’s after death. What about before–when everyone is still alive and functioning?

Two recent conversations convince me that this subject is still alive and problematic.

The first is a casual conversation at lunch, when someone talked critically about childrens’ not doing all they could for an old parent because they didn’t want all her money spent on her care. They wanted to save some for themselves.

The second is a recent conversation with a friend–one of four children. His mother, after lengthly hospitalization for significant problems several years ago, was ultimately admitted to an assisted living facility. Her apartment was put up for sale by the 2 siblings previously designated her health care proxies.

All 4 siblings agreed about selling the apartment, but not about the sale price. Emotions surfaced; siblings took sides. A bad housing market plus dated apartment generated no viable offers, even after several  price reductions and a change of brokers. Meanwhile their mother’s money was going towards her assisted living and maintenance on her for-sale apartment.

Now it looks like a sale will go through–at a price way below the original. Although resolved to selling it, 20/20 hindsight reignites the discord that has tainted relationships since this began. The apartment’s expenses will be gone. Relationship damage probably won’t be.

Which brings back thoughts from decades ago when Mother and her brother were deciding on a nursing home for my grandmother, who’d suffered a bad stroke. Mother had selected the best place in town; my uncle wanted the less expensive place. Mother wouldn’t consider it. I’d never seen Mother so upset–she rarely got upset. As I recall, Dad said he’d make up the cost difference. My grandmother went to the costlier place. Fortunately Dad could do that.

Dad–mediator, negotiator, fixer-upper–as usual was trying to “fix” things, which included an explanation to me. Of course 13-year-olds think simple: It was Nana’s money.  Why not use it for the best place? Isn’t that what it’s for?

I learned that Dad placed great valued on family. He came from a very poor family (so poor they used the Sears-Roebuck catalog pages for toilet paper in their outhouse).  He felt family should stick together which included feeling duty and responsibility to his parents, and maintaining a good relationship with brothers and sisters (regardless of how anyone felt about their spouses).

The rationale for making up the cost difference makes sense when adult children think like Dad, have enough money, or one sibling has more and is willing to do more than his or her share. On the other hand, when adult children–who are given control of their parents finances–are needy, irrational, or jealous, preserving their future inheritance can become a higher priority than helping their parents age as well.

It brings up the question: How can parents ensure they’ll get the best available care and that their children won’t be “at each other’s throats” debating how their parents’ money is spent–when parents can no longer be in charge?

I put this question to Sr. Advisor, RHW, Esq. who confirms this is a common problem. He promises to offer us an opinion later this week, when he’s able to devote time and serious thought.  He did say, however, you can never know how much trouble adult children’s spouses will cause when they “stick their nose” in the family’s business.  We await elaboration.

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