Intrusion or Just Being Safe? Monitoring Aging Parents’ Finances

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For most adult children with aging parents, there is often the dilemma of whether or not they should be involved with monitoring their aging parents spending habits. You want to honor their independence, but what if they show signs of slipping? Should you talk about it or just wait until “something happens”? Here’s something critical that every adult child needs to know: if your parent shows signs of mental decline something is already happening. Don’t wait. Research makes it clear that the ability to manage finances is the first thing to go downhill when a person is developing Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. A cognitive decline could be for any other reason, too. We should not ignore it.

Old woman with credit card in front of her laptop looking at you

Penny is 93 and until recently, the professionals in her life saw no particular reason to be concerned about her mental status. She was usually clear, at least until she was 92. Her accountant thought she was on top of her finances. Her lawyer did too. But Penny was managing seven separate real estate investments and no one in her family, particularly her son, was helping her. He may have thought she was fully capable as did her acquaintances. She had been successful for decades. But then her lawyer, living in a different city, wanted her to sign a document and have it notarized. She got confused and insisted that it be done incorrectly. The document came back a mess. Still, her lawyer thought Penny was probably ok, just attributing the error to “normal” forgetfulness. At, I would have advised her lawyer otherwise. Forgetfulness is a warning sign.

Her son was not so sure about Penny being capable any longer. Other little changes had popped up. He finally got her to a doctor who wrote a letter with the opinion that Penny was no longer able to manage her personal and financial affairs. That triggered her son taking over managing the property, among other things. He was not prepared for what he found.  Of the seven real estate holdings, five had IRS liens. Penny had failed to pay the property taxes. That meant that he had to sell the one building that was not encumbered to raise cash to pay back taxes on the others and to use the cash to fix up the buildings, most of which had fallen into disrepair.

Penny is a good example of an elder who is generally pretty clear but is definitely not able to handle finances any longer. The process of her cognitive decline did not happen overnight. It had taken several years. During that time she endangered her assets, lost track of her finances and could have lost most of her real estate to tax liens. Could this be prevented?

Yes, prevention can protect someone like Penny, but it typically takes close monitoring and recognizing the warning signs of diminishing capacity in an older person.  At the first signs of “slipping” monitoring needs to either begin or increase. For adult children or others in a position to help, this means getting online access to the bank accounts so you can see what is going on. If there is real estate, either go and eyeball it yourself or hire someone to do so. Look at the books. See if bills are paid, taxes are current and management is sufficient. As people age, these complex tasks can easily become too much to handle. For the heirs, it is a matter of securing what is likely your legacy from your parent. If you think you are intruding, get past that. The financial safety of your elder is at stake.  None of us can shroud ourselves in the familiar of trusting an aging parent completely, regardless of how bright, experienced and accomplished that elder may be. Age changes us. It can erode good judgment and attention to financial detail.

Monitoring finances online does not require the direct involvement of your aging parent except to give the ok. You check often and notice all financial transactions. For my own family, my hubby monitors all his 94-year-old mother’s activity. He made a deal with her to call him every day. She does. He sees all charges on her credit card and he oversees her tax preparation and payments. So far, so good.  She doesn’t have dementia but she needs watching.  We have to practice what we preach: keep a close eye on someone that age. So many aging parents would benefit from this kind of oversight. How about yours? Our book, The The Family Guide to Aging Parents can also help. Get your copy today.

By Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Elder law attorney,

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