The Moneyist: My ‘narcissistic’ sisters took over our alcoholic mother’s finances. They are draining her bank account. What can I do?
I often read your advice column, and now I have questions of my own.
For many years my mother was an intelligent, strong businesswoman who worked her way up the corporate ladder and was making a six-figure salary by the time she was in her mid-40s.
She also was an alcoholic. A very high-functioning one, but an alcoholic nonetheless. I started to notice how serious her drinking problem was in my early 20s, as did other family members, but my younger sisters (twins, three years younger than me) remained in denial until it was too late.
In her late 60s, her years of alcohol abuse finally caught up with her when she developed Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is a form of brain damage and whose symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. My sisters finally woke up and helped me intervene when my mother could no longer take care of herself.
“ ‘The first rehab stint cost over $30,000. My mother didn’t drink during her month there and started to improve, but as soon as she got back home she started drinking again.’ ”
The doctors told us that the most important first step in dealing with her was to get her to stop drinking. My sisters decided that rehab was the best bet, but all of the reputable alcohol rehabilitation programs run by hospitals and led by medical doctors and psychiatrists said that my mother was not a good candidate for their programs.
My sisters, having seen the numerous Hollywood movies where someone spends 30 days in rehab and then is “cured,” went about finding a program that would take her, and sent her to the first place they could find. The first rehab stint cost over $30,000. My mother didn’t drink during her month there and started to improve, but as soon as she got back home, she started drinking again.
So another rehab stint, then another and another, and always the same outcome. Before her first rehab stint my mother had over $200,000 in her savings account, and by the end of a year it was almost all gone. I tried to talk to my sisters about what I see as the rehabilitation racket: centers that just want your money and have no real ability to get people to stop drinking. But they wouldn’t listen to me.
At one point I went with my mother to her bank and had her put $5,000 of what was left of her money into a savings account in her name that my sisters couldn’t take for more rehab, because I was worried that my mother was going to end up broke.
‘It will always be two against one’
My sisters found out about it and accused me of trying to steal from my mother, tried to get other family members against me, and got a lawyer to prevent me from having anything to do with my mother’s finances. They told me that if I ever tried to see her again without them present as witnesses, they would file a restraining order against me.
I have gone to other family members for help and advice, including my father, from whom my mother has been divorced since 1990. My father says he agrees with me, but he has no leverage over my sisters so there is nothing he can do.
“ ‘My sisters accused me of trying to steal from my mother, tried to get other family members against me, and got a lawyer to prevent me from having anything to do with my mother’s finances.’ ”
Because they don’t know what to do or they don’t want to get involved, he told me to not fight with my sisters because it will always be two against one, so I should accept that there is nothing I can do.
My mother has no idea what day of the week it is or who the current president of the U.S. is, so she is in no condition to advocate for herself.
The COVID-19 pandemic began pretty much right after this final showdown, so I haven’t seen my mother in the past year, but know that my sisters have moved her into a nursing home upstate. I have pretty much cut off all communication with my sisters. As you can probably guess, we were never all that close to begin with.
I speak to my mother at least once a week just to check in. The one silver lining from COVID is that she can’t really go anywhere and the home she lives in won’t serve her alcohol, so each week she sounds like she is improving a little.
I am very worried that my sisters are going to blow through all of my mother’s money (they pretty much already have). They are now trying to sell her house, which is worth at least $1 million, and I’m worried that they will blow through that as well.
My mother will receive $2,500 a month from Social Security for the rest of her life, but I don’t think my sisters will be able to provide her with everything she needs, considering the home they placed her in alone costs over $3,500 per month.
I love my mother, and I’m afraid my narcissistic sisters who never listen to anyone and are convinced that they are the experts in this and every other situation are making a huge mistake they won’t realize until it’s too late — just like when they wouldn’t acknowledge that our mother was an alcoholic until it was too late.
My question is this: Are my relatives and father correct? Should I just accept that there is nothing I can do and let my sisters spend every dime my mother has, and just hope that they’re able to take care of her? Or is there something I can do to intervene and have some say in my mother’s medical treatment and living arrangements?
A Helpless Sister
Helplessness, as your mother’s able daughter, is merely a state of mind. Your mother, unfortunately, is in a more dependent state. I agree with you that she would have been better off in a nursing home from the beginning. Given her illness and her alcohol addiction, rehab was probably not the best place for your mother.
The good news is that your sisters have finally figured that out. The bad news is the money is running out, and you need to be an active participant in your mother’s affairs, and also not be ostracized from her life based on the whims of your other two sisters. This is also a cautionary tale for people who don’t have long-term care insurance.
The dilemma of whether you should put an elderly relative, particularly a vulnerable one such as your mother, in a nursing home is a question complicated by the high rate of COVID-19 in such homes, and the level of trust you have in such homes and in the sites that recommend them (or not, as the case may be).
“ ‘You may wish to hire a lawyer who specializes in conservatorship and challenge your sisters’ power of attorney, or petition the court to take over as POA.’ ”
Back to your description of yourself as helpless. You need support in order to help and support your mother, and ensure that the best decisions are being made for her. You may wish to hire a lawyer who specializes in conservatorship and challenge your sisters’ power of attorney, petition the court to become your mother’s POA, or at the very least become a joint POA.
That will give you the legal clout to make good decisions and prevent bad ones. If no family member is willing or able to take your mother in, you will need to put a financial plan together for your mother’s nursing-home care. It will be neither easy nor cheap. Paying money for legal advice could save you money in the long run.
There are also a rake of organizations that will advise you on the wisdom of selling this home and how to set up a trust for your mother’s expenses if you do, and what you need to do to apply for and/or qualify for financial aid. Among those organizations are the AARP and National Family Caregivers Association. There are more here.
You are not going to change your sisters’ minds about you — and, while that would probably make your life easier, it should not be where you direct your energies or focus. There are too many ad hoc actions, and not enough planning. You can have your voice heard, however, and ensure your mother gets the best help available to her.
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