Dear Family Advisor

How can I keep my husband, who has Parkinson's, from burying us in debt?

Last updated:

November 10, 2008

My husband of 47 years has never shared financial information with me because he says I can't understand it. (Nor does he explain it well.) Now he has Parkinson's and is getting more and more confused. He has us $62,000 in debt and is adding on $500 each month for vitamins. Now he wants to charge an additional $1,000 to trim our trees and $1,000 to buy a new furnace.

He's paying off credit cards with another credit card! How do I gain control without sending him over the edge? He just isn't competent to handle the finances anymore. He says I'm trying to take control away from him -- and he's right. We also have a 45-year-old retarded son and a brain-damaged daughter, age 40, to consider. I can't afford a lawyer. What can I do?

Since you weren't privy to your family's financial information before, it's difficult to tell whether your husband has actually always handled the finances this way or if the disease is responsible for his actions. In either case, it does seem that it's time for you, or someone else, to take charge of the bills.

You'll need to deal with this situation quickly but also gingerly because this is as much an emotional issue as a financial one. Your husband's ego and his sense of his manhood seem bound up in being the one who handles the money.

The first thing I would suggest is trying to move this away from being a control issue. Have an honest talk with him about his condition and his future.

Talk about what he's feeling emotionally. People with Parkinson's often feel that their independence is eroding every day. Continuing to do a task he's always done may be your husband's way of fighting against that feeling. This talk may be very difficult to initiate if you haven't already had a direct discussion about his disease or he's uncomfortable talking about his feelings. But I urge you to begin talking frankly now.

Remind him that, at some point, you'll probably need to take over this job, so why not start now, when he can help you through the transition? Does he really even enjoy doing the bills anymore, or does he do it simply to prove to himself that he can? Why not spend this precious time doing something that he really enjoys? If he can look at it in this light, he may be relieved to relinquish the task.

Instead of dwelling on what's being taken away in his life, focus on what he still can do and would most like to do. This is applicable to all areas of his life, not just paying bills.

Make plans to do something he's always wanted to do, such as travel. Try to get him involved in a support group, exercise, or activity -- or all three -- to help ease the psychological pain of losing control and to help him connect with his capabilities.

If you aren't listed on the checking and savings accounts or credit cards, tell him that you need to be now. Once your name is on your bank account, you can take over the bills. What you don't know about banking, bill paying, and financing, you can learn.

For a jump-start, contact a financial organization online or in your community that can mentor you. There are financial advisors who work for free or on a sliding scale, especially for seniors, so make some calls and get some help. There are also groups conducted by women for women in your situation. You don't have to tackle this alone. But do tackle it -- and soon.

Rather than yanking the bills away from your husband, you may be able to ease him into the new situation by letting him still handle part of the finances. (I'd suggest that you still double-check what he does, however.)

I've also heard of caregivers who let a loved one at an advanced stage of the disease think he's still paying the bills. You can simply purchase other checks and then redo the bills yourself. If you're comfortable with this, and if it makes your husband happy, you might consider it.

If your husband digs in his heels against you doing the bills, you might suggest that another trusted family member or financial advisor take on the responsibility. A financial advisor would cost money, but she could save you money in the long run if you stop this financial bleed before it gets any worse.

Use your current debt, the state of the economy, and the need to plan for your children's future as arguments for this. If you don't plan for them, they will become wards of the state.

If all else fails, you might just take the checks, the bills, and any other financial information away from your husband. Buy a lightweight safe and keep them locked up. Pay the bills in the middle of the night or when you go to the grocery store.

This is the least desirable path, of course, and it goes against your traditional marital pattern, but times have changed, and the two of you are going to have to adjust. He may be able to call the bank, but as long as the two of you are on an account, it'll take both of you to change anything legally.

You can also speak to his doctor if you think your husband should be declared incompetent. I know this sounds terrible, but it's really a form of "tough love." In his right health and mind, your husband wouldn't want you and your children to go bankrupt, lose your home, or spend your last days penniless. You have to believe that and stay strong.