What to Do If a Sibling's Taking Advantage of an Aging Parent: 9 Tips

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

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The sad fact is, if you think you are alone in dealing with this problem, you aren’t. Vast sums of money have been spent in court between warring siblings accusing one another of exploitation or abuse of a parent.

It is a heartbreaking situation and one that you can take steps to avoid but may not be able to prevent altogether.

Taking advantage of an aging parent can take several forms, but the most common is financial. Statistically, family members are responsible for most financial exploitation.

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Sibling estrangement might make it even harder to communicate and get any kind of cooperation from a sibling that you suspect. According to the National Council on Aging, “estimates of elder abuse and fraud costs to older Americans range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion annually.” 

Along with financial exploitation, taking advantage of an aging parent can involve less obvious acts like moving a grandson in to live rent-free; turning a parent against a sibling; emotional pressure to favor one sibling over another.

Elder abuse of any kind is a crime. Every state has protections against an older adult’s exploitation, but hopefully, you can avoid having to make a report to the authorities. 

How to Stop a Sibling From Taking Advantage of Your Aging Parent

How and what steps to initiate depends upon the severity of the situation and your relationship with your sibling.

There are so many different scenarios, but one of the most common ones involves a sibling who is living with your parent or close by. Perhaps things started off well, but you have been alerted to or recognize signs of exploitation or undue influence.

Your goal should be to give everyone the benefit of the doubt before taking legal action, assuming that the situation doesn’t require immediate, urgent action.

1. Talk to your sibling

The first step to take is to talk with your sibling about your concerns. There might be a reasonable explanation.

Explain what you have observed in non-threatening terms and ask for a reason. It might help to have a family meeting with any other available siblings or family members. Having an agenda might be helpful to keep everyone on track in discussing issues of concern.

These conversations could be very challenging and might bring up old conflicts. You will want to be respectful and try to avoid topics that might trigger old unresolved arguments.

If you don’t feel that you receive a satisfactory explanation, or your sibling is unwilling to cooperate, move on to the next steps. Know that you have tried to work things out with your sibling to the best of your ability but haven’t received the assurances you need.

2. Talk to your parent

One of the reasons financial exploitation is vastly underreported is that an aging parent doesn’t want to cast blame, may feel ashamed, or may not accurately assess the situation.

If your parent has cognitive impairment, this complicates matters because they may not even realize they are being taken advantage of. If your parent expresses concerns about being taken advantage of, it will make it easier to intervene on their behalf because you have their cooperation.

3. Suggest legal protections

When siblings disagree about handling an aging parent’s affairs, it can be hard to agree over who should assume legal authority. Suggesting an outside neutral party to take over finances could be a possible solution.

Consulting with an elder law or estate planning attorney to set up a trust administered by a bank is one way to give authority to a professional group.

Or suggest that a professional company take over managing the estate, pay bills and make reports to the family. If your sibling objects to a neutral third party, that is a red flag.

4. Contact Adult Protective Services (APS)

If your sibling refuses to cooperate or agree to reasonable solutions, you are required to report the situation to Adult Protective Services. Reports to APS are anonymous, but it won’t be hard for your sibling to guess you made the report. Whether APS can intervene is the question.

In some cases, APS will visit the aging parent to discuss the allegations, and the parent will deny that there is a problem. In that situation, there may not be anything APS can do. But, at least there is a record of your report which might be helpful if you end up going to court.

5. Contact an attorney

If your parent has the mental capacity to make decisions, then the situation can become more complicated than not. Your parent may be freely giving away their estate to your sibling. The question is whether your sibling is taking advantage of your parent in some way to gain financial access. Is your sibling threatening your parent or controlling them? 

Assuming there are no legal documents that give one sibling power of attorney, you will need to consult with an attorney on your options. Suppose your parent has questionable capacity due to dementia or some other condition.

In that case, you can petition the court for guardianship, which would give you complete authority over your parent’s healthcare and finances. Expect that your sibling might object, and then things can get drawn out in court, which is expensive.

An attorney may recommend mediation before taking the situation to court. Mediation gives all parties a chance to air their grievances and go over any evidence before deciding to go to court. Your sibling might be willing to make some changes if they recognize they could be in legal trouble.

Mediation can save money and give all parties a chance to salvage family relationships. If mediation fails, the case will go before a judge. If the judge is unable to make a determination in the case, he or she may appoint a professional company as a temporary guardian.

ยป MORE: How do you support a loved one through loss? Help them follow our post-loss checklist.

 

How to Prevent Siblings From Taking Advantage of Your Aging Parent

Preparation is always the best prevention. It is easy for time to go by, and before you know it, things with your aging parent have gotten out of control. This is especially true if you have come to rely on a sibling for most caregiving duties.

The emotional and psychological transition from trust to distrust can be very stressful. That said, here are some steps you can take before and possibly during any conflict to prevent a sibling from taking advantage of your aging parent.

6. Advance directives

Having advance directives in place might help, but it won’t necessarily prevent a sibling from taking advantage of your aging parent. It is not that unusual for the suspected sibling to already have power of attorney to exploit your parent. If possible, when you are setting up advance directives, make sure you are both listed as having authority to manage healthcare and finances.

If your sibling already has guardianship, you can petition the court to change the guardianship and appoint you or appoint a professional company. Sadly, it is not that unusual for family members to take advantage of an aging parent using guardianship to do so.

7. Recognize the signs

It is human nature not to want to believe the worst in people, especially a sibling. If you can, try and take a very objective view of what you observe. If your parent is dependent upon a sibling for their care, it can make it very challenging. Some of the signs of exploitation are:

  • Your sibling controls visits with your parent by always wanting to be present or not allowing visits at all.
  • Unusual and unexplained withdrawals from your parent’s accounts.
  • Your parent suddenly changes their will.
  • Bills are not being paid
  • Your parent seems fearful.

8. Be involved

Even if you are further away, being involved in your parent’s life can be the best way to prevent problems later. We have some suggestions on how you can stay apprised of how your aging parent is doing, which has benefits beyond keeping them safe from abuse and exploitation.

  • Visit often. If you can’t visit, then call or, even better, video conference so that you can see first hand how your parent looks and seems emotionally. If you can visit in person, do so regularly to have time to talk with your parent about how things are going and assess the home situation.
  • Consider in-home personal care. A professional home caregiver can keep an eye on how your parent is doing and alert you before problems become unmanageable or unsafe.
  • Hire a geriatric care manager. A geriatric care manager can make periodic visits on your behalf if you are unable to. They are very good at assessing safety and psychological well-being. 

9. Trust your instincts

You may not want to believe what you suspect. Trust your instincts and talk with other family members if you can about your concerns. If you think something is wrong, it probably is. Before making decisions, however, get as much verifiable information as you can and keep track of it so that you can provide this to authorities if you need to.

Sibling Taking Advantage of an Older Parent

There are few situations as challenging and difficult as family members distrusting one another. The urge to keep the peace is strong, but your responsibility is to your aging parent, who may not have the ability to protect themselves. If possible, keep your parent removed from the conflict. Try to use good judgment and seek legal counsel to clarify your options.


Sources:

  1. “Elder Abuse Facts.” National Council on Aging. https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts/
  2. “Get Help.” National Adult Protective Services Association. https://www.napsa-now.org/

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