Ageing parents: siblings go to war

March 4, 2013

Most of us with ageing parents know terrible cases of sibling warfare among brothers and sisters in their 50s and 60s. When adult siblings have to make decisions about frail, dependent parents the wounds of childhood are easily re-opened. When Mum breaks a hip and can’t walk or Dad’s memory gets too bad to stay at home, siblings are suddenly called upon to re-engage and co-operate.

Siblings may genuinely disagree on what’s best for their parents. But ulterior motives – usually around money – and unresolved emotions like guilt and anger towards a sibling or parent can poison the discussions. It’s all too easy to re-enact childhood rivalries as if we are locked in our old roles – the family clown, the responsible one, the favourite, the naughty one…

“I work in ugly things day after day,” Pam Suttor, an elder law specialist told me.

Take the case of 89-year-old Jean (names changed for legal reasons). She is the divorced mother of four children. In this fight it was brother and sister versus brother and sister. Jean had moved from daughter Karen’s house to live with son Michael. Daughter Helen had held enduring power of attorney over the mother’s affairs but the mother changed this to give Michael and Karen joint authority.

In a battle before the Guardianship Tribunal of NSW, Helen and another brother, Chris, claimed their mother was being exploited and was powerless to resist Michael’s and Karen’s influence. She had given almost half her savings to Michael to help him stave off creditors.

The tribunal heard independent reports that Jean’s living conditions at Michael’s were unsafe. But it also heard Jean was competent to make her own decisions. If she wanted to give most of her money to debt-encumbered Michael she was free to do so, and the other siblings could only watch. “I saw the best and worst of families, and there were horror stories,” Diane Robinson, former president of the tribunal, told me.

Have I mentioned wills yet?

The problem is older than King Lear. But these days so many people live beyond 85 and need care. So many brothers and sisters, a product of big post-war families, are involved in the decisions. And the parental home, after decades of capital gain in booming property markets, represents money worth fighting over. With major changes in aged care funding to start next year the scene is set for potentially more intra-family battles. Many elderly people will have to sell their home – or otherwise find serious money – for high level care in nursing homes. It will usually be the sons and daughters having to decide whether to sell – or hang onto the inheritance intact.

Typically trouble erupts when a parent sells their home and moves in with the adult child who offers care for life. The parent transfers a large sum of money to the carer. The money may disappear into the child’s business ventures in a case of early inheritance syndrome. Under the law the money is presumed to be a gift unless there’s strong evidence to the contrary. And if the carer reneges on the bargain, if Mum is evicted penniless, there’s little the other siblings can do except fight.

Another typical situation involves guilt-ridden or greedy siblings. They have done little for their ageing parent but suddenly sweep down like a tsunami to try to wrest financial control from the competent, self-sacrificing sibling who has cared for years. On the other hand, there’s the case of the free-loader carer; the family no-hoper who had to move back into Mum’s house, or never left. They exercise tyrannical control in the one area of life they have power – Mum’s life and money.

As for wills: it’s not unusual these days to see adult grandchildren pitted against their own parents, or uncles or aunts, in fights over the estate. So it happened in the case of Kastrounis v Foundouradakis where the 88-year-old grandmother, Erini, had transferred her house before death to her three favourite granddaughters, sisters in their 40s. They reaped almost $180,000 each while Erini’s three children in their 60s were left $10,000 each. “I want to look after the people who have looked after me,” Erini reportedly had told her lawyer. But two of Erini’s children challenged in the Supreme Court of NSW. The granddaughters had to hand over $65,000 and $35,000 to their uncle and aunt.

How we siblings navigate the serious business of looking after our ageing parents can determine whether our families stay connected through the generations. One way to avoid sibling disputes, says elder lawyer Brian Herd, is with Family Agreements. These are legal documents drawn up when parents are still capable. They make transparent informal arrangements, such as parent-to-child loans. They may spell out how a live-in carer can be recompensed in the parent’s lifetime rather than in an unequal will.

Of course cleaning up the relationship with a difficult sibling in advance of a crisis is best – but how hard is that?

What’s your experience been? (Go to ‘Leave a reply’)

For more on this topic see my article in The Global Mail.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday.