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 wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.
Dear To Her Credit,
My younger sister, age 42, has been using my elderly mother’s credit card to purchase things on the Internet and on shopping channels. Mum has tried changing the card number, but somehow my sister manages to get it again. She has charged $6,000 in junk in the past three months. Mum has dementia, and my sister is seriously abusive and violent. What can we do as family members to help her? Mum is afraid of her. — Jennie
I’m so glad you wrote and are seeking help. This is a serious abuse case and you must act immediately to protect Mum.
The first thing you should do is contact the credit card company and report that the card has been stolen. Your mom may not be able to get out of the $6,000 in charges because she didn’t report the card as stolen, but it doesn’t hurt to explain the situation. I asked David Okrent, an elder law attorney and financial expert based in Long Island, about this situation. “It’s possible if she calls the credit card company and says the card has been misused, the credit card company may go after the sister for it,” he says. “That’s what I would expect. Let the course play itself out a little bit. I don’t think it has to be more complicated.”
Your mom can also consider placing a freeze on her credit by contacting the three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This will prevent any additional lines of credit being opened by anyone other than your mother. Please read our article, “Put your credit report on ice with a credit freeze” for more information.
Also, you need to make sure your mother is safe. She may or may not be able go to the district attorney’s office herself and get a Temporary Restraining Order, but you can do it for her. Karen Fitzgerald, a Los Angeles-based attorney specializing in elder law, says, “We call these ‘kick out’ orders.” Under California law, they’re good for 21 days. “Then there is an evidentiary hearing and further orders are made that could keep the sister away from mom’s house for three years.”
Most abuse cases have ups and downs, and if things are momentarily quiet, you may feel a restraining order is overkill. Use your best judgment, but remember that stealing credit card numbers — even from a relative — is blatant theft and abuse. The fact that your mother changed her credit card number to try to stop her from using them shows your sister did not have permission to use them. And when your sister is thwarted and forced to come to terms with her actions, she will probably get more violent, not less.
Elder abuse like this is more prevalent than you might think. “The whole country is focused on elder care abuse. It’s not uncommon,” says Okrent. “That’s why the DA’s office is important. It’s possible that there will be an order of protection to protect both the mother and the daughter. In all these elder abuse cases, whoever is doing this is always intimidating everybody. They’re criminals.”
If you call the DA, make sure you haven’t taken any shortcuts as you help your mom. “The thing to keep in mind is that once it goes into the DA’s hands, it becomes the DA’s case,” says Okrent. “She’s got to have clean hands. The DA will investigate everything.” Be careful not to co-mingle your funds and your mom’s funds and you should be OK.
Going forward, you or another responsible party should become your mother’s conservator or successor trustee and take control of her finances. Fitzgerald says, “She should immediately look for mom’s estate plan if she has one, and the successor trustee should step in and handle all of mom’s financial affairs. If there is no estate plan, then a conservatorship petition should be brought for both the estate and the person, especially if mom has dementia. Once a conservatorship is in place, the conservator should petition the court for an order under the probate code that the violent sister return the money.”
You will need good legal advice throughout this process. You can find a lawyer near your mom that specializes in elder care from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
It’s hard to have to take legal action when family members are involved. But it’s worse to wait until it’s too late to do much good, as Fitzgerald has observed in more than one case. “I have seen fraudulent Powers of Attorney where life savings can be wiped out in a few transactions,” says Fitzgerald. “Family members [must] be proactive at the first sign that mom or dad is ‘slipping.'” You can find help to take care of your mom, yourself and your mom’s credit.
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