Too Much Power in Your Power of Attorney?

Elder financial abuse victim who gave a power of attorney to her daughter

A divorced, unemployed auto mechanic in his mid-fifties, Daniel told me a whopping combination of inheritance and elder abuse stories. He uncovered the disturbing details when he moved back home to Baltimore after losing his job in Atlanta.

Who’s got the power of attorney?

Daniel’s 93 year old mother suffers from a combination of dementia and mental illness. She lives alone, but her two children visit almost every day. Daniel’s sister Amy is their mother’s primary caretaker and she claims their mother gave her a durable power of attorney. Daniel hasn’t seen it. If valid, Amy can control their mother’s finances and make healthcare-related decisions for her. Now.

Amy told him she instituted a “do not resuscitate” order. If their mother has a heart attack or a stroke, the paramedics and doctors will make no heroic medical efforts to save her. He was horrified and angry that Amy didn’t consult him when she made this life-or-death decision. Did Amy even discuss it with their mother?

Please read You’re in a Coma: What are the Financial Consequences? Don’t wait until it’s too late to let people know what you’d want if there comes a time when you can’t tell them.

Stealing from your parents

Dad died a few years ago, and Daniel believes Amy helped herself to whatever funds were left in the joint checking account. Their mother’s Social Security benefits are electronically deposited like clockwork on the 2nd of each month into their mother’s account. Amy writes checks payable to herself and forges Mom’s signature. Daniel said he knows his happens because his mother is clearly incapable of filling out and signing checks.

It’s correct that if you have power of attorney to handle someone’s personal affairs, “you’re not supposed to give yourself a salary – you’re supposed to do it out of the goodness of your heart,” he told me.

Neglecting the elderly

In addition to stealing money, Amy neglects to take basic care of their mother’s house.

If Amy needs light bulbs, she removes them from her mother’s home. It makes no sense. Amy isn’t struggling financially. She inherited $250,000 when her husband died. She cleaned out their dead father’s accounts. Amy receives Social Security disability benefits and freely spends her mother’s limited funds.

Yet she’s so stingy she won’t buy light bulbs for herself or her mother.

Daniel has limited income, but he’s the one who buys batteries for his mother’s smoke detectors.

He’s disgusted with his sister and described her as “a sponge who’s cheap and would rather fill up her daughter’s gas tank before taking care of the needs of her own mother.”

Mom is supposed to take medication to control her high blood pressure. Daniel checks the bottle of pills when he visits but it never looks like the quantity changed. Amy says she has a new prescription; the medication is inexpensive, but he thinks she doesn’t want to spend the money to fill it.

Daniel calmly told me his family stories but it was clear that he was deeply concerned and frustrated.

Power of attorney as a license to steal

I asked if he had confronted his sister. He hasn’t because he’s worried that Amy may retaliate by interfering with his ability to land a new job. He can’t afford to stay unemployed, but at the same time Daniel can’t bear how Amy mistreats their mother and uses her alleged power of attorney “as a license to steal.”

Daniel told me that worried about his mother’s welfare. He wants “to put everything the way it should be … you’re supposed to make sure all their needs are met and not put them at risk.”

He doesn’t want her house to get any darker.

Do you know any seniors who are vulnerable? How can you protect them?

EDITED: As one commenter below points out, if you suspect someone is the victim of elder financial (or physical) abuse, contact Adult Protective Services in your state.

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Update – Powerful Power of Attorney
You’re in a Coma: What are the Financial Consequences?
Wife Insurance

 

 

Image © iStock.com/Kali Nine LLC

Comments

  1. I’m sorry, this is a hellacious situation. but this sentence “Daniel’s sister Amy is their mother’s primary caretaker. ” explains a lot. Daniel has left the care taking of his mom to his sister and brother and has not been there to help for how long? And now he comes in on his horse and demands everything is wrong? He has no idea what is involved in keeping a woman with dementia and other mental problems at home, which his sister is clearly doing. Who cares if she steals a lightbulb? In my family, there is no “stealing”. If my brother (who is my parents main caregiver) took a lightbulb from their house, I’m surely not going to give him hell considering all the other things he does for them. And yes, his sister needs to have power of attorney and the ability to have funds to care for her mom. I’m just not sure we have all the info. It sounds like bad blood between the siblings. A woman who is in her 90’s with dementia and other health problems living at home is really not an easy situation to handle every day.

    • Hi Karen! You are absolutely right, there’s always more to the story.

      I spoke only with Daniel, so I don’t know how his sister would have painted the family picture or described what’s going on at their mother’s house.

      I agree that being a caregiver to an elderly person can be one of the world’s toughest jobs. I admire people who selflessly fill that role.

      But there are also many instances where an adult child without the best intentions seizes it as an opportunity to cash in.

      The real tragedy is that the victims of elder financial abuse are usually silent.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I hear stories like this way too often. Money does awful things to people.

    • Hi Carol,

      Yes, it’s a sad truth that mixing your financial and relationships often leads to bad outcomes.

      A bigger philosophical question is why we let money have such a powerful hold over us.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Those with durable power of attorney (DPOA) are required by state law (every state) to provide an accounting of the elder’s assets. Daniel’s and Amy’s mom should NOT waive those requirements. It’s a common mistake to do that. Also, if Daniel is concerned that his sister is abusing her authority as the agent under DPOA he should contact Adult Protective Services where mom lives. He doesn’t have to have a solid case against his sister. APS is trained to investigate.

    • William,

      Thanks for your EXCELLENT advice.

      I think their mother was unable to speak for herself. Daniel never saw the POA and said that maybe Amy didn’t even have one. The murky situation kept everyone from doing the right thing such as being transparent with the finances.

      Most people are unaware that you should notify Adult Protective Services if you suspect elder financial (or physical) abuse.

      Thank you so much for your helpful comments!

  4. Hi Valerie
    This is such a difficult situation, and I suspect it happens more these days with smaller families and higher economic stress. I grew up surrounded by many generous and responsible aunts and uncles who took care of the powers of attorney and estates of my grandparents and great-aunt (who never had children) in pairs or groups. There was never any mistrust or negativity. I have since been witness to many stories like the one in your post. If people can just be as accountable to each other as possible and put egos aside, so much pain and heartache could be avoided. It’s a hard enough world out there. We just need to work together wherever we can. Relationships matter more than things.

    • Hi Ida Mae,

      How wonderful that you grew up with a family who took care of their end-of-life affairs and fostered a positive environment! As you’ve seen, unfortunately that is not the norm. You are so right that relationships with family and friends matter more than possessions. It’s hard for people to keep that in mind when there’s money and stuff floating around.

      Thanks for your comments!

  5. Hi Valerie, Whether we know both sides of this story or not, your post points out a frequent abuse of the elderly. It’s a reminder to keep our own affairs in order as we age and to say something if we feel abuse is being done. Great post!

    • Hi Joan,

      Unfortunately, I could write a whole book about elder abuse stories (it’s only one chapter in my upcoming book). You are so right that we all need to take care of the business that so many of us avoid (keeping our wills, powers of attorney, living wills, etc. up to date because it’s so unpleasant to think about).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. This is good information to have. My parents and brother live on the other side of the country , so I imagine he will have the POA. I’ve never given much thought to this, mainly because I don’t understand how anyone could take advantage of a situation like this. But I am sure it happens a lot. Very sad.

    • Hi Michelle, thanks for stopping by! I love all the recipes on your blog — many of them are easy for a kitchen klutz like me!

      Now is a good time to look into these things (who’s got a POA and what it covers). I think it’s important that everyone in the family understands the arrangements in advance, even though it’s uncomfortable for most people to talk about.

  7. Another interesting and sad story. I do echo the sentiments of one commenter who stated a child who’s been absent for so long then now wants to come in is questionable. Either way if he does care for his mother he should figure out a way to partake in her life. His unemployed situation makes it more difficult. He can focus on securing a job and then challenge the POA if necessary?

    • Hi Jason, thanks for your comments. When I met with Daniel, he sure did have a lot going on in his life. I hope things are more settled for him now and that his mother is in good hands. Thanks!

  8. A POA and Health Care Proxy are critical to have in the event that you are unable to take care of your issues
    The difficult thing is that they give so much power. Maybe giving any power is too much. Even to someone you love and trust. Is there an alternative?

    • Hi Chris! You make a great point that most standard form powers of attorney give enormous rights to a person to decide important matters for you.

      However, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing deal. You can impose certain limits. For example, the person may sell any of your assets, but not your house. Or you can sign a “springing” power of attorney (rather than a general durable POA) that only “springs” to life if some event occurs, for example if you become incapacitated and can’t make your own decisions.

      As for your health care decisions, check out the “Consumer’s Tool Kit for Health Care Planning” compiled by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging. The documents in this kit are not legally binding. Instead, you use them to let your family, close friends, and doctors know now what your personal medical preferences are. It covers situations beyond the general “coma” dilemma, such as whether you want to be an organ donor or whether you would want a feeding tube inserted if you can’t eat.

      So yes, you do have alternatives to giving someone complete control over your life (and death).

      Thanks for your comments!