Q&A: To help elderly dad hold off mooching adult kids, call in the experts

Dear Liz: My dad, age 90, needs personal care and I am trying to get him to move out of his house to a senior residential place. He is in agreement, but it is taking a long time to make this happen. He owns his home free and clear and, along with the sale of his home, has enough financial assets to cover these costs.

The problem is my two sisters’ husbands, who overspend and are in debt. These two guys continue to pressure my sisters to ask my dad for money for such things as their mortgages, expenses for their children and credit card debt. My sisters are not just starting out — they are in their 50s! Not only that, when I ask them for help with our dad, they flake out on me. I’ve told them that the financial assistance can’t continue because Dad will need his money to pay for his care.

I feel that my sisters’ and their husbands’ behavior is senior financial abuse. I read that this situation happens a lot in families, where the kids will milk an elderly, wealthy, sympathetic parent or grandparent, sometimes draining their savings. Or one dysfunctional sibling with take financial advantage of a parent, while other siblings in the family struggle with making ends meet. In our family, both my sisters have children, so my dad feels a soft spot for helping them out. I am single, no children, and I am treated differently. I do struggle to make ends meet. My dad is sometimes even reluctant to reimburse me $20 for gas that I spend driving him around and doing shopping and errands.

I’m trying to remain on good terms with my sisters but it is getting tough. Is there any financial advice or references you can give in my situation?

Answer: You’re right that most financial abuse of the elderly is committed by people close to the person, typically family, friends or caregivers. The toll isn’t small, either. A survey by Allianz Life Insurance Company found that the average victim lost $30,000 and 1 in 10 lost more than $100,000.

Family members may not see what they’re doing as abuse. They may think that they “deserve” the money or that it’s some kind of advance on a future inheritance. They also know that Dad just can’t say no and will continue to press him for money as long as they’re allowed to do so.

You and your dad should consult an elder law attorney to discuss ways your dad can be protected against predators. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Elder Law Attorneys at naela.org, and the attorney can discuss your options.

One obvious solution would be for Dad to hand over his checkbook to you, which would give you the unpleasant job of standing up to your brothers-in-law. You’re certainly in a better position to do so than your elderly father, but he may not be willing to give up control or you may not want the job.

Another option is hiring third parties. Daily money managers provide personal finance and bookkeeping services to elderly clients. They can keep a watchful eye on transactions and spot signs of fraud. You can get referrals from the the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers at aadmm.com. Hiring a geriatric care manager also could be a good move. The manager could assess your father’s health, living and financial situations and help craft a plan to help him move forward. Referrals are available from the Aging Life Care Assn. at aginglifecare.org.

Q&A: How to protect an elderly widower from financial predators

Dear Liz: Our mother recently died after a long illness. Our father is in his 70s and is getting a lot of attention from ladies at his church and the senior center. We’re concerned because of a pattern we’ve seen in other families, where the widower remarries and the new wife convinces him that his kids are only after his money. When he dies, she gets everything. The kids and grandkids are left out in the cold. We love our dad and don’t want him to think we’re gold diggers. We also don’t want someone to take our father from us and take advantage of him. What can we do?

Answer: If your father is willing to consider it, an irrevocable trust could go a long way toward protecting his assets from avaricious future wives and any number of other financial predators, including scam artists and unethical financial advisors. The trust could continue to pay income to him while allowing the underlying assets to be transferred at his death to the heirs he chooses now, when his judgment is presumably not impaired.

This is not a do-it-yourself project. Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust could create a gift tax issue for your dad. An attorney who specializes in trusts will have to carefully craft the language to avoid that, Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell said.

The problem may be convincing your dad that he’s vulnerable to impaired judgment. Although our financial decision-making abilities peak in our 50s and our cognitive abilities decline fairly rapidly after age 70, our confidence in our abilities continues to rise as we get older.

Financial literacy expert Lewis Mandell likens it to driving ability. Other research has shown that older drivers often don’t perceive their driving skills as deteriorating, despite declines in sensory ability that come with aging, said Mandell, author of the book “What to Do When I Get Stupid: A Radically Safe Approach to a Difficult Financial Era.”

But the same research found that when the drivers took an objective test that demonstrated their decrease in skill, they were more willing to alter their driving behavior to reduce the probability of accidents.

It may help to have a third party, such as a fee-only financial planner or an estate planning attorney, talk to your dad about the importance of protecting his assets at this stage in his life.

If that effort fails and he marries the type of woman you fear, try to remain in his life, no matter what. She may try to pick fights with you and then demand he take her side as a way of isolating him. Avoid conflict where possible and maintain contact with regular calls, letters and visits. It will be harder for her to demonize you if you remain a constant, loving presence in his life.

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“Look back” rules limit Medicaid transfers

Dear Liz: You had an interesting column recently about the filial responsibility laws that most states have on their books requiring adult children to support indigent parents. I have friends that transferred their parents’ funds to the grandchildren so the parents will qualify for Medicaid. Doesn’t the government see through this scam? Besides being unethical, it should be illegal.

Answer: The government does indeed see through transparent attempts to artificially impoverish older people to qualify for Medicaid, which offers nursing home care for the indigent.

Medicaid has “look back” rules that examine asset transfers made within the previous five years. Transfers made during that period can delay the older person’s eligibility for the program. In other words, your friends’ maneuvers may well backfire. You should advise them to consult an elder law attorney. Referrals are available from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.

Parent’s medical bills may be tax deduction

Dear Liz: The writer who wrote in about her mother’s medical bills should check to see if she took those bills as a schedule A deduction on her 2010 and 2011 federal tax returns. She still has time to amend those returns, if that is useful.

Answer: That’s a terrific suggestion. The writer’s mother may qualify as her dependent if the writer covered more than half of the mother’s necessary living expenses, including in-home care, and the mother’s situation met certain other requirements, such as not having gross income in excess of IRS limits. Gross income does not include nontaxable Social Security checks or other tax-exempt income. The limits for gross income were $3,650 in 2010, $3,700 in 2011, $3,800 in 2012 and is $3,900 for 2013, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.

Even if the mother didn’t qualify as a dependent, a deduction may still be possible, Luscombe said. As long as the writer provided more than one-half of the mother’s support, the writer might still be able to claim a deduction for medical expenses if all of the writer’s medical expenses, including those paid for the mother, exceed 7.5% of the writer’s adjusted gross income in 2010 and 2011. (The medical expense deduction threshold increased from 7.5% to 10% in 2013 for those under age 65.)

Helping family led to unpayable debts

Dear Liz: I have $40,000 in credit card debt due to home healthcare I had to provide for my mom, who lived with me for six years before she passed away in 2011. I filed a Veterans Affairs claim on her behalf but just got a VA check for $344 with no explanation about whether this was all it was going to allow. If it is, I need to file for bankruptcy. I owe $18,000 on my mortgage and $32,000 on a home equity loan I took out in 2001 to help my son get on his feet after he finished graduate school and had his first child. I also had some credit card debt from helping my brother in 2009 when he had cancer and could not work and his wife left him so he had no income. I also have $20,000 in a money market account that I call my retirement fund. Is it protected if I were to file for bankruptcy? The economic downturn caused me to have to take a $700-a-month pay cut the first of this year that will reduce my annual salary to $55,000 if there are no more cuts or layoffs. If they were to close the business completely, my Social Security benefit will be $1,900 per month, compared with $3,400 that I take home now. I have always paid my bills, but Mom’s medical expenses really have taken a toll on my finances.

Answer: Your debt exceeds your income, and few people in that situation manage to pay off what they owe. But bankruptcy isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Your home equity and your savings could be at risk. Had you actually put your money into a qualified retirement account, such as an IRA or a 401(k), it would have been protected from creditors. Just calling an account your retirement fund offers no protection whatsoever. A bankruptcy attorney familiar with the laws of your state can tell you what to expect. You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.

You also need to call the VA at (877) 222-VETS, or (877) 222-8387, to find out whether you can expect any more help. The VA does offer some long-term care benefits to veterans and their spouses who qualify for the aid. The time to request help, though, was when your mother was still alive.

Which leads us to the problem of your spending money you didn’t have to help people who may well have had other options. If your mother couldn’t get VA help, she may have had assets that could have paid for assistance. If not, she might have qualified for long-term care benefits through Medicaid, the federal healthcare plan for the indigent. Your brother also may have qualified for federal or state benefits. Your son may have had a rough time getting established, but he had a degree and a working lifetime ahead of him.

That doesn’t mean you should have thrown family members to the wolves. But it’s not clear you considered any other options before turning to credit. Sites such as Benefits.gov and the Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov could have connected you and your family to resources that might have helped. Other family members may have been able to pitch in, or the people involved may have had assets to tap. If there truly were no other options, your assistance should have come out of your current income. If you have to borrow, then you really can’t afford to help.

As it is, your generosity has left you at the threshold of retirement with little savings and big debts. Let’s hope your family is as willing to help you in your old age as you were to help them.

Is a reverse mortgage a good option for this couple?

Dear Liz: I try to watch out for my neighbors, a married couple in their early 90s. Two of their three sons, who are both in their 60s, want them to get a reverse mortgage. The couple’s house is paid off as well as their cars. They pay all their monthly bills with Social Security and his pension. They have a living trust as well. Neither I nor the couple see any reason or upside but the sons are pressuring. Any input?

Answer: A reverse mortgage is typically a last-resort option for elderly people who are strapped for cash and who have few options for generating income other than tapping their home equity. The couple you’re describing does not seem to fit that profile.

The sons, however, may fit the profile of greedy relatives who can’t wait for their inheritances and who are trying to get their mitts on some money early (possibly squeezing out the third brother).

That assessment may be too harsh, but you might encourage the couple to talk to the attorney who drew up their living trust about this. If that attorney isn’t experienced in helping the elderly protect themselves, a field known as elder law, you could help them find someone who is by getting referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, http://www.naela.org. If the two sons have any role in handling their parents’ money should the parents become incapacitated, it might be prudent to replace them or at least name another trusted party to serve with them.

Your neighbors also should consider letting the third son know what his brothers have been trying to do. In some families, the best defense against greed is an ethical relative who can keep his eye on the rest.

Will home sale trigger eviction?

Dear Liz: Our landlady has been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. In her precarious health, I find myself concerned that we may have to move if she gives up the duplex and moves to a care facility.

I’m unemployed and my 72-year-old husband has recently been diagnosed with early stages of dementia. I find it difficult to face the prospect of returning to work and finding proper care for him even though I know I need to do so very soon.

If she sells the duplex or leaves it to someone in her will should she die, what protection do we have against having to move out in a hurry or have our rent raised dramatically? Either situation would put us into chaos. What are our options?

Answer: If you have a lease, that contract typically would survive a change in ownership. The new owner would have to honor its terms until the lease was up. If you rent month to month, the new owner would have to follow minimum notice requirements determined by your state to raise your rent or terminate your tenancy. The Nolo website at http://www.nolo.com has additional information about tenants’ rights.

If you can no longer afford your rent, you may be eligible for government housing assistance if your income is sufficiently low. You can find more information by using the Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov or calling (800) 677-1116. You should check out this federal service’s resources in any case, since you will have a big task ahead of you in caring for your husband even if nothing changes in your living situation.

Other good sites to explore include the Alzheimer’s Assn. at http://www.alz.org, which has information for caregivers and a “care locator” that can help you find care options in your community such as adult day centers, in-home care and respite care. And speaking of respite, you also should check out the ARCH National Respite Network at archrespite.org for people who can help when you need a break.