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Sister opens cards using Mom's identity

By

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
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 Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Question for the CreditCards.com expert

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 does.

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

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear 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 from creditors."

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

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
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Erica Sandberg, Opening Credits columnist Erica Sandberg,
"Opening Credits"

Published: June 28, 2013



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