Dear Family Advisor

Now that Mom might be dying, my absentee brother is suddenly showing an interest -- in her money.

Last updated:

May 11, 2010

I've been involved in my mom's care for the past five years: I take her to appointments, have dinner with her several times a week, and cover the weekends. (She's had live-in care.) Recently, she had surgery for colon cancer and is now in a rehabilitation center. Suddenly my brother showed up (he hasn't come around more than twice a year before now) and started poking around her finances. I found him rooting through her drawers looking for paperwork.

I'd like to think he's had a change of heart and wants to spend some quality time with his mother before it's too late. But I'm suspicious. He's commented that it costs too much for her to stay in a care home and that we should sell her place so she'll qualify for aid. How do I talk to Mom about this -- and how do I suggest that I'm not sure he has her best interests at heart?

Sometimes being our loved one's advocate means protecting not only them but their assets, even from other family members. It sounds as if your mother is of sound mind, so all you can do is assist and advise her.

It is odd that your brother would show up and first focus on your mother's financial situation. It's possible that it's his way of trying to help -- like many men, he may see your mom's declining health as a problem to "fix." It's not that simple, as I'm sure you know. Being your mom's longtime caregiver has given you an edge on understanding the tangled world of eldercare and its costs.

You sound understandably concerned and frustrated. Listen and observe. Yes, your brother's been out of your life and your mom's for a while, but maybe you can help smooth things out and even change his focus. Eat together and talk about old times. Act as if you expect the three of you to be a team regarding your mom's care.

I love this quote: * "People are most likely to live up to what you expect of them."* Expect your brother to act like a loving, caring, helpful, and honest family member. Insist on no less. Receive him with love and warmth -- but also be wise and prepared. He may have reappeared in your mom's life for less than admirable reasons, so it's your job to remind him that being family means not hurting or taking advantage of those we love.

Meanwhile, make this an opportunity to help your mother get her affairs in order. Be proactive and gather up all her medical and financial files. Do this with your mom or explain to her what you'd like to do on her behalf. Assure her that you're helping her know where she's at, financially. If she wants to avoid the whole thing, then move forward knowing you've been above-board about your intentions.

I wouldn't bring up concerns about your brother with her at this point -- it's not about him. It's about your mom and making sure her finances are safe and figuring out whether she'll have the means to continue her care as needed.

After talking with your mom, call an elder-law attorney and get advice. Attorneys have a wealth of knowledge, and a consultation fee isn't exorbitant compared with what your mom stands to lose. The attorney may suggest other area resources. Be sure to also ask what you can do to protect her finances from someone taking advantage of her. I wouldn't mention this meeting to your brother prior to having it, since you have concerns about his intentions.

Your intuition that he's not just thinking about what's best for your mom may be correct. Consider asking her if you can put her paperwork in a safety deposit box or another place that's private. If he asks to see it or be more involved, you can explain that your mother's estate is now being managed by an elder-law attorney. That sends a message that no one can just waltz in and manipulate her. Show him that you've got your act together, that you're aware of your mother's financial situation and aren't a pushover.

The best thing you can do for your mom is to stay involved and keep the lines of communication open. Talk every day. Ask if your brother has visited and what they talked about. If your brother does try to get your mom to sign paperwork such as a durable power of attorney or other documents, it will be harder for him to do so if the two of you talk often and you're always stopping by.

If he starts acting secretive, then you know something's up. You may not be able to stop him, and sometimes one sibling will carry more power with a parent than another does, even if it's just because he's the oldest. All you can do is be prepared, try to circumvent a family feud, and protect your mom all that you can.