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.

Helping an indigent parent navigate “the system”

Dear Liz: Our mother just turned 64, and our father is divorcing her. She hasn’t worked in years because of significant physical and mental health issues. My sister and I have been trying to figure out how she’s going to survive on $750 a month, which is the equivalent of half his Social Security. She has always had serious issues with money management, which is why there are no retirement savings or a house. We are now about to embark on the maze of social service benefits that an older woman below the poverty line can receive, partly so we can decide whether she’s better off staying put where she is in Arkansas, moving to my sister’s in Texas, moving to be near me in Maryland, or moving to her childhood home of Chicago, where most of her friends are. For a lot of complicated reasons (mostly related to the mental health issues), we are trying to avoid having her live with either of us full time, and she expresses no desire to do so. So we have to figure out the ins and outs of Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized senior housing and anything else in four different states and then try to explain it to her. If you have any hints about helping an indigent and somewhat incapacitated mother access services, we would love to hear them. We feel a little overwhelmed at the moment and aren’t even sure whom to call in each place.

Answer: It’s understandable that you feel overwhelmed. You have a huge task in front of you.

You can start with the Eldercare Locator, a free service offered by the U.S. Administration on Aging that can connect you to services for older adults and their families. You’ll find it at http://www.eldercare.gov, or you can call (800) 677-1116.

Another resource you might want to consider is a geriatric care manager. These are professionals who help family members care for elderly relatives. The care manager can evaluate your mom, review her options and make recommendations. Their services aren’t cheap, but they can be especially helpful in managing a long-distance situation. You can find referrals at the National Assn. of Geriatric Care Managers’ site, http://www.caregiver.org. And speaking of distance: It might be easier to help your mom if she lives closer to one of you, or to a trustworthy friend who can check in on her and let you know how things are going.

You also should check with an Arkansas family law attorney, since your mother may be eligible for some kind of spousal support and possibly a property division that could help her financially.

Finally, if your father dies before your mother, she still will be eligible for survivor benefits that could bump her Social Security check up to 100% of what your father was receiving. Many people don’t realize that ex-spouses can qualify for survivors’ benefits as long as the marriage lasted 10 years and the person applying for benefits didn’t remarry until after age 60.

Protecting a parent from financial opportunists

Dear Liz: I liked your answer to the elderly couple who were being badgered for money by their daughter and her husband. I agree that involving the other daughter can help.

I managed to combat the tendency of family and caregivers to pester my 90-something mom for money by convincing her to give me electronic access to her bank accounts. We did this so that I could pay her bills if she got sick unexpectedly. The other benefit is that I see the small larcenies as they begin to happen. Then I can quickly step in and stop them before they escalate. It is a lot easier having a conversation with someone who has sleazed $100 from her than to deal with the $5,000 theft that motivated me to set this in motion.

She is deeply grateful that she doesn’t have to be the heavy with the people she loves and depends on. You can’t make greed disappear, but it can be managed. I continue to be amazed by how easy it is for people to think that her money (which gives her a sublime sense of security in the midst of physical frailty) is their money because they need it and she is too kind (and dithery) to say no.

Answer: Installing a trusted gatekeeper can be an effective way to keep elderly people from being financially abused. The elderly person can refer all requests for money to the gatekeeper, which in itself is likely to reduce the begging. If a relative can’t perform this function, sometimes an advisor can. Ideally, the advisor would have a fiduciary relationship with the client, meaning that the advisor is legally obligated to put the client’s needs ahead of his or her own. Attorneys and CPAs are fiduciaries, and some financial planners are willing to be, as well.