This is the sixth in a series of articles about the issues that arise over time for older people who experience mental declines -- and how you, as a family member or friend, can help.
While you may wish that an elderly relative's doctor would encourage that relative to allow you to help with money management, you are probably on your own.
Anita described how she had gradually gotten her Aunt Sadie's finances back in order.
"I noticed a lot of unopened mail lying around. On one visit, I asked her if she'd like me to help her sort her mail. She agreed, and I left her with a stack of bills to be paid, and I got rid of everything else that she didn't need.
"The next time, I could see that the bills were still there, so I asked if she wanted me to prepare the checks for her to sign. She agreed. After a few more visits, my aunt said, 'Why don't you just take care of it?'"
With her aunt's permission, Anita was added as power of attorney to her aunt's accounts, and handled her money from then on.
Jeanne took a more direct approach. She said, "You haven't paid your credit card bill in three months. You didn't pay your federal and state income taxes. You have always been very careful to pay all your bills on time. Now they aren't getting paid. I am sure that this isn't the way you want everyone to think of you -- as people who don't pay their bills." Her parents agreed to let her help, and she was added as power of attorney.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, how can you keep the peace in the family -- and protect yourself against the possibility that another relative will jump to the conclusion that you're helping yourself to Mom's money?
The first step is to document the gaps that you have seen in your elderly relative's financial management. Once your siblings (or others with a legitimate right to know) understand that the problems are significant, they are less likely to object to steps planned to solve them.
The second step is to disclose the plan. ("I'll write the checks to pay Mom's bills. I will try to make sure that her standard of living stays the same.")
The third step is to arrange for someone else to review your actions. For example, if Josh handles the money, then he might give his sister Alison a flash drive three times a year that contains copies of all bank statements and other financial documents from their mother's accounts.
Maybe Alison will study every line and maybe she won't. But everyone involved will know that she could. This oversight protects their mom, and it protects Josh.
In the case where two older people are in a second marriage, it is especially important for the child who ends up handling their joint finances to have a single contact among their stepparent's children, and to send that person copies of bank statements and major bills each month, if the step-sibling would like to have them.
It is a good idea to talk to a lawyer before making arrangements to take over a parent's finances. A lawyer can prepare the appropriate powers of attorney, usually a better approach than simply having yourself added as a co-owner of your parent's accounts.
What's the best advice financial planners have to offer? Jeremy Kisner, a certified estate planner in Phoenix, said, "Start the discussion early. The biggest shortcoming is that people do not think that they will get sick. They do not think that they will decline cognitively. They are sometimes unwilling to have the discussion. It is best if all the decisions are made up front, before there is an issue."
Kisner advised that children of aging parents point out that the parents may eventually need help, and ask to be included in discussions about financial decisions and discussions with advisers such as financial planners, accountants, or attorneys.
The next article in this series will explain how to talk to your parents if you feel that a move to assisted living is in their best interests.