Dear Family Advisor

My mother gave power of attorney to her new husband, who is putting her life in danger. How can we get it away from him?

Last updated:

June 16, 2008

My mother started dating a man about six months after my father died in 2000. She didn't mention it to the family until shortly before she decided to marry him. We urged her to slow down, but she wasn't having any of it. She said to me, "Your father always told me what to do, and you are not about to start." She accused me of just being concerned that she'll spend the large sum of money my father left her, but this was the furthest thing from my mind.

She married the man about three months after they met. I just couldn't attend the wedding, especially after losing my father less than a year before. This put stress on our relationship, and it's gotten worse and worse. Phone conversations are impossible -- she tries to end the conversation as soon as she can, and her husband tries to listen in.

Recently my mother's health issues have landed her in the hospital, close to death, several times. During each hospitalization, she has asked me not to visit or call because it makes her husband uncomfortable.

After coming home from the hospital one time, she fell ill and asked to be taken back. He waited until 3:30 the next morning before he called the ambulance. At that point, her blood pressure was 60/40 and she was near death, according to my aunt. She has confided to my aunt her fear that her new husband will put her in a nursing home if her health deteriorates.

The most unfortunate part of this whole scenario is that her husband has power of attorney. My aunt, cousins, and brother have encouraged her several times to change this, but she won't budge. Do you see any avenue of recourse to save our relationship or at least get her to change the power of attorney?

Your goal must be to keep your mom safe, first, and then try to build a foundation on which everyone involved is respected and acting in her best interest. Begin by talking about your mother's situation to someone at your state's abuse hotline for elder care. Unfortunately, abusive situations (and this includes neglect) are far too common when loneliness and longing for companionship make our loved ones more vulnerable. The abuse hotline can give you advice and discuss your legal options. You should know that if your mom will publicly back up her husband regarding his care, it will be up to you or your brother to prove abuse or neglect. You will have to report this to the elder abuse agency in your state, which is part of the Department of Children and Family Services. The agency will then assess the situation and determine whether it considers your mother in danger.

If you decide not to report the situation at this point, you need to get close enough to your mom to monitor her situation. To do this, you're going to need to create a dual plan of action: Try to settle the matter peacefully with her husband, but also be prepared to seek legal council if necessary.

First, make an attempt to clear the air with him. Explain to him that you missed your dad so much that you had a hard time attending their wedding (which is true), and you feel that this got your relationship off on the wrong foot. Emphasize how much you love your mom and just want her to be happy. Try to get him to open up to you enough that you'll have more access to your mother. This may sound manipulative, but if it works out, it's the best thing that could happen for her.

At the same time, try to document the decisions your mother and her husband make. You need to see if things are escalating, if she's falling more, if she has mysterious bruises, if she's becoming increasingly dizzy or disoriented (a sign that she may not be taking her meds). Try to get a sense of how she spends her days and when she goes to the doctor. Enlist the eyes and ears of your aunts, brother, and cousins as well. Drop in unexpectedly when you're in the neighborhood or just because you feel like seeing your mom. Remember that her safety comes first. Be willing to cause a scene if you have reason to believe she's not safe.

Your mother seems to confide in her sister, so encourage your aunt to keep the channels of communication open and active. A sister is less threatening than a child -- and your mother may feel especially humiliated to talk to you about this since she made such a point of telling you not to tell her what to do. Gentle coaxing from her sister may help her make a decision to rename a health surrogate or power of attorney. Your aunt can stress to her that no one else would need to know that she does this.

Then be ready if your mom decides to act. Have everything in place so that she can do it in an afternoon. Perhaps your aunt or cousin could take her -- she needs to feel safe and not threatened. She also needs to feel that she didn't make a terrible mistake. She needs to keep her dignity but also know there's a way out if she needs it.

Shannon Martin, director of community relations at Florida's Aging Wisely, also suggests asking someone your mother trusts -- her attorney, financial planner, family friend, chaplain, or rabbi -- to mediate a family discussion in which everyone involved can state their concerns without being confrontational. Or you could bring in a geriatric care manager for a fair and impartial voice. Hopefully, such a setting would be a more neutral and less threatening place for convincing your mother that it's in her best interest to have a blood relative, and someone who's younger and healthier than her husband, to act as power of attorney for her.

If your mother's health deteriorates further and she isn't competent to make health and financial decisions, you could go the legal route and get a guardianship (some states call it conservatorship) appointed. This is quite costly, however. So first try to offer help in a positive manner. It's in her best interest if all of you can feel comfortable enough to communicate regularly.