Sister opens cards using Mom's identity
To Her Credit
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also writes regularly for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Steward Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com
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Dear To Her Credit,
My only sibling, my sister, lives on the West Coast. My
88-year-old mother lives on the East Coast and has never been out of her state
except once to visit me in Colorado.
Unknown to my mother and dad, my sister opened multiple
credit cards -- "individual" accounts, not joint -- in my mother's name
using her Social Security number in 1992. She used them for herself and her
middle-age son, charging as much as $50,000. She also borrowed
$27,000 from the cards in 1997 with the promise to pay back the full amount with
interest in four months.
Three years ago, I found out about the credit cards. I asked
my sister many times to cancel those cards and she refuses. My mother has asked
her to pay back the $27,000 she borrowed. She says she will, but she never
My mother has never been aware of the credit card charges,
and now that she is showing signs of dementia, I am very worried about what my
sister is continuing to do.
In addition, my sister took over my mother's checking and
savings accounts in 2010 and changed everything to her address in California.
Further, she removed my name from all my mother's bank accounts (without my
knowledge), so I can no longer see what she is spending Mom's money on. My
sister signs everything, financial and other documents, with my mother's name.
She has a power of attorney dated October 2010, and I have one dated November
2010; however, I do not believe that gives her the right to continue using my mother's
name. Again, my mother is completely unaware.
I contacted an attorney, but at $200 per hour I cannot
afford an attorney to fight this. I am hoping you can tell me what I should do. -- Judith
You've known for three years that your sister has been
stealing your mother's identity to run up credit card debts, and you haven't
told either of your parents? I'm sure you meant well and didn't want to upset them,
but you've allowed a thief to continue pilfering their account all this time.
You're going to have to sit down and have a talk with them.
If your sister has a power of attorney from October 2010,
and you have one from just a month later, your power of attorney does not
automatically cancel hers. Two people can have power of attorney for the same
person, but the arrangement only works when they cooperate with each other.
This is clearly not the case. If your mother intended for you to be the only
one with power of attorney, she should have drawn up a document to rescind the one
for your sister.
I recommend that you seek legal help that is specifically experienced
in these issues. Harry S. Margolis, a Boston lawyer specializing in elder law, says, "The best thing would be
for your mother to hire a local elder law attorney to represent her. The attorney could help your mother revoke
your sister's power of attorney and notify all of the credit card companies of
the fraud. If your mother owns her own
home, the attorney may be able to file a homestead declaration to protect it
You may not be able to afford to hire an attorney, but perhaps
your mother can. She can hardly afford not to. Margolis suggests that your
mother may be eligible for local legal services for the elderly, although the
funds for these programs have been cut lately.
The other approach, according to Margolis, would be to search
for a protective services program for the elderly where your mother lives and
contact it. Try looking for one that is part of a state agency or the local
district attorney's office.
You have a responsibility to protect your parents. The first
step is to tell your parents -- they may not be as surprised as you think. With
your help, they can start to make things right.
See related: Steps to take to relieve elderly mom of credit card debt, Duped by son, Mom stuck with $20,000 debt
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Published: June 28, 2013