Maintaining Financial Boundaries

By setting boundaries, harmony in the family can be preserved.

In my Elder Law practice, I counsel regularly with older adults and their children. Some of their stories and challenges are unique, but some I hear over and over again. When this happens, it seems worth writing a tip about it.

As adults age and start to require assistance in paying bills and making financial decisions, often a well-meaning adult child will come alongside of his or her parents to help them in financial matters. For example, an adult son may start by writing checks and have dad sign them. As mom needs help with the groceries, an adult daughter may pick up a few things for her and pay for mom’s groceries along with her own. Somewhere along the way, boundaries are blurred, and the well-meaning adult child begins to have a sense of ownership and entitlement to dad or mom’s property.

Other times, an adult child, who never really figured things out for himself or herself, starts to rely on mom—her fixed income and limited assets—for his or her support. Moms are especially easy prey in these situations. Their love for their children knows no boundaries, and they sometimes willingly sign over the farm and anything else that may be asked for. Mom’s happiness and even her daily needs are now inextricably tied to her children’s choices concerning her.

The problems that both scenarios create are endless. If the adult son or daughter has paid for things out of their own pocket, they may feel they should be compensated for past purchases or even services provided.

When other siblings learn of financial exploitation of a parent, family relationships are fractured, which is the last thing mom and dad want. Also, Medicaid eligibility, which funds assisted-living care, can be jeopardized if parents have given away their property. Wills can become meaningless, if in the parents’ lifetime they give their property to a child. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

So, what is the solution? Maintaining good boundaries is essential when helping an aging parent. With regard to finances, maintaining boundaries starts by approaching the task with the attitude that a parent’s property is their sole property and should be used solely for their benefit. That’s not to say that a parent cannot use discretion to purchase gifts for children and grandchildren. But, if the gifts become excessive or lopsided between family members, that can be a red flag, and it can become a breeding ground for trouble and discontent among siblings.

The next step is putting in place an accountability system for the person who is assisting the parent. It can be a simple system of saving receipts for the groceries and writing a check to be reimbursed for the amount of the purchase. A little accounting can go a long way to prevent suspicion or misunderstandings.

The third step in maintaining good boundaries is transparency with other family members. As a family, talk with parents about how they would like to be helped, put a plan in place that is understood by the family, and as the plan is carried out, routinely update family members with information. This way, harmony can be preserved, and parents can have the dignity and respect that they deserve.

Tom Packer is an Elder Law Attorney serving all of Southeast Idaho. As part of his law practice, Tom offers Life Care Planning to deal with the challenges created by long-term illness, disability and incapacity.  If you have a question about a Senior’s legal, financial or healthcare needs, please call us.

Thomas W. Packer

November 2017