Is Mom responsible for her bills if she has dementia?

A fellow caregiver asked...

About five years ago my mother was diagnosed with dementia. At the time, my older sister cared for her and helped her with her finances. In September of 2006 my sisters placed Mom in a care home. Unfortunately, my older sister failed to have her utilities turned off in the house my mother was renting. In December of 2007 my sister called me and asked me if I would be willing to care for mother. Since I was against putting her in the home to begin with my wife and I talked it over and we took Mom home with us. After a few months mom started to receive past due notices from PG&E. I asked my sister about this and I found out that her daughter (my niece) has been living there not paying utilities. Now Mother gets a collection letter. Is my mother responsible for this bill since she's incompetent?

Expert Answer

Carolyn Rosenblatt, R.N. and Attorney is the author of author of The Boomer's Guide to Aging Parents. She has over 40 years of combined experience in her two professions. As a nurse, she has extensive experience with geriatrics, chronic illness, pain management, dementias, disability, family dynamics, and death and dying. As a trial attorney, she advocated for for the rights of injured individuals and neglected elders. She is also co-founder of

From Carolyn Rosenblatt, R.N., B.S.N., Attorney: The question of who has responsibility for bills after dementia diagnosis can be tricky. Unless the court has officially declared a person incompetent, she is still technically responsible for anything that is in her name. In your situation, it is better to pay the bill, as no one took responsibility for turning off the electricity. Your mother, with you acting on her behalf, have a legal right to go after your older sister and her daughter for the failure to turn off the electricity (apparently this was intentional) and your niece for using the electricity without paying for it. Be cautioned, however, that suing a family member, even in small claims court can be very destructive of relationships. I suggest summarizing the situation in a letter to your sister and niece,and asking for reimbursement of the exact amount of the bills you have to pay from mom's account. What they have done could be considered elder financial abuse. You must weigh the cost of paying the bill from mom's money against the effect of trying to get "justice" against your sister and niece. Some things are not worth getting into a family fight about. If your mom has the money to pay the bills, it may be best to just let it go after you write the letter, and learn from the experience.