Dear Family Advisor

I think my brother is skimming money off Mom's accounts. How do I handle this without hurting my mom or making myself look like the bad guy?

Last updated:

May 10, 2011

My mother thinks my brother is a doll who can do no wrong. He butters her up like crazy with sweet talk that makes her feel good, but ever since she agreed to let him manage her finances (about a year ago), I noticed her savings and checking accounts dwindling at a rapid rate. Then, about two months ago, she put his name on the accounts, and he gets her statements delivered to his house, so I never even see them now.

I'm starting to get worried, but if I don't handle this right she'll only get mad at me. She tends to see me as the bad guy anyway, because I make her take her meds and do her physical therapy (she has severe arthritis).

I realize that my brother makes Mom feel good with all the lavish attention he gives her, and I really do think he loves her -- so how do I appeal to him to not take advantage of her?

This is the time to be savvy so that you can quietly document anything that's going on, but you'll also want to do all you can to preserve relationships -- for your mom's sake.

Be OK with being the "bad guy" in your mom's eye, but try not to embrace that persona. Change it, in your mind, to "tough love" or something less negative. Refuse to see yourself as the one who has to do all the dirty work while others get the glory, even when others see you this way. What you give your mom is vital, and you can find great satisfaction and even a little bit of fun in what you have to give. While it might not seem fair that your mom adores your brother, if that's the way it comes down, let her. You probably can't change her mind at this point, and when you really love someone you have the maturity to understand that relationships aren't always reciprocal.

Suggest monthly meetings to go over everything, from your mom's finances to house repair to how to divvy up care responsibilities. Suggest an equal sharing of the load in all areas. Don't just allocate the finances to your brother while you become the errand girl. Ask him to champion a monthly medical appointment while you pay a few bills. Use the old excuse, "If anything happened to you, I'd need to know how to do this." Get right in there and be a little nosy but with an innocent tone. If your brother doesn't have DPOA (durable power of attorney), then you have the right (with your mom's knowledge) to see her financial information.

Tackle your mom's care as a team and don't take no for an answer. We can hope your brother will pick up on your emotional cues and realize that you're going to be involved and there's little he can do to stop you. If he gets defensive, that may be a sign that something is up. Still, don't blow your cover. All throughout the month, write down anything you see, such as a bill that comes in (notice the balance and whether it continues to go up or if payments are made on time). Keep your own private notebook and begin to track her finances. If you do have to step in, you need proof -- and that's why it's important to chart any changes or variances over a period of time.

There are legal steps you can take, but don't go that route unless you have to. Why? Because it will hurt your mom. She needs both of you -- and you won't instantly become the "good guy" by revealing your brother's less-than-admirable intentions. That can backfire on you.

The smartest thing you can do is to let your brother subtly know that you know what's happening and that you will, if you have to, bring it out in the open to protect your mom's assets. Hopefully, he'll get the message and cool it. If not, then begin to take calculated steps to protect your mom. I suggest contacting an elder-law attorney for advice if or when it gets to that point. (In fact, you could go ahead and meet with one to get tips on how to gather needed information now, but let him or her know you really want to nip this problem in the bud before it escalates into legal action.)

Try not to formulate an opinion about what your brother is doing. Some people just fall into a bad habit of using someone else's card or, as you say, "skimming" off the top, and while that's not at all a good thing to do, it's also not as underhanded and cruel as other types of behavior. Let's hope your brother has just gotten into a bad habit and that he'll correct this behavior if he knows that it's wrong and there's someone he has to be accountable to -- and that's you.

Your goal should be to preserve your mom's finances and her relationships. Keep that goal first and let it guide your actions and your heart. If your brother is a good guy who has just gotten a little sidetracked with access to money, then do all you can to remind him that your mom is vulnerable and needs the two of you to protect and love her in every way. Try your best to love your mom the way you know how and not make comparisons. You and your brother have a moral and ethical responsibility to care for your mom, and this situation has the potential to bring out the best in each of you.