- Date January 23, 2013
Sylvia Pennington – SMH Newspaper Fri 25 Jan 2013
Disposing of a family estate equitably can be a source of enduring conflict between brothers and sisters.
Assuming control of an elderly parent’s financial affairs can be time consuming and emotionally draining – and a true acid test of sibling relations.
In some families, selling the parents’ home, making investment decisions and taking charge of day-to-day money matters are worked through collaboratively and amicably.
In others, deciding what is in mum and dad’s best interests can spark mistrust, ill will and estrangement among adult children.
For 48-year-old Sharon Thompson*, taking charge of her parents’ affairs has soured an already lukewarm relationship with her three older brothers.
Sharon is carer and business manager for her increasingly frail parents, now aged in their mid-80s.
A signatory to one of her father’s accounts, Sharon pays some of their bills on her credit card and withdraws money to reimburse herself and cover her parents’ daily expenses.
She leaves a clear audit trail, storing the funds in a separate wallet, keeping receipts and recording all transactions in an account book.
”I don’t want my brothers coming back and saying, ‘You spent all of mum and dad’s money,”’ Sharon says.
”We’re seriously covering ourselves … it’s money, and where family is involved, you have to be careful.”
The parents live in a granny flat purpose-built by Sharon and her husband two years ago. According to Sharon, at the time one brother accused her of championing the flat to funnel a chunk of the inheritance into improving the value of her home.
But Sharon says she and her husband ”put ourselves in debt to pay for it, as well as protecting the inheritance from paying a bond at a nursing home.”
Her brothers also prevented Sharon from being appointed enduring power of attorney (POA), which would have allowed her to make financial and property decisions on her parents’ behalf if they became incapacitated.
This remains a sore point for Sharon, who believes her father would have been willing to sign a POA if his children were united.
”Our family doesn’t discuss things very much,” Sharon says.
”Dad can’t cope with thinking about things very much. He gets stressed very quickly. He said, ‘Don’t worry about that at the moment.’ My brother said, ‘You don’t have it because he doesn’t want you to have it.’
”But I’m the one that’s here doing things. My brothers have no clue about how bad mum and dad are and how much help they need.”
POA holders have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the individual and ensure they and their assets are protected.
While financial planners and lawyers say POA agreements are a must-have for ageing parents and their family, deciding who gets the guernsey can create conflict.
One child might be a more gifted administrator or better equipped to handle POA duties than his or her siblings but this is not always acknowledged by the others, says a senior adviser with financial-planning firm Future Assist Financial Services, Sean McNeill. McNeill says those left out of the decision-making process can feel ”unimportant, unloved and every other human emotion that is invoked when dealing with family.”
Some parents try to circumvent this issue by appointing all their children to act under POA, with decisions to be made unanimously or by majority. But management by committee can be impractical if siblings are geographically dispersed, says a succession lawyer at McCullough Robertson, Ashleigh Poole.
Determining whether the family home should be sold to fund a nursing home accommodation bond is the most common source of conflict, Poole says.
While POA holders may make the call, Poole says ensuring other siblings aren’t left in the dark should be a priority. ”Communication is very important. The POA needs to keep the other siblings up to date and seek their views.”
Taking financial and legal advice as soon as the POA is invoked is also wise, says a financial adviser at PSK, James Gerrard. Specialists can provide advice on maximising Centrelink entitlements, whether to rent or sell the family home, and assisting the POA holder to understand their duties and ensure their actions are perceived as reasonable.
Being given POA for her 83-year-old mother has thrown Sarah Murphy* into the bad-cop role in her large family.
After her mother suffered a stroke last year, Sarah and her older brother arranged the sale of her mother’s house and car, the dispersal of possessions and the mother’s shift into a nursing home.
Sarah says she has also spent ”weekends and weekends” sifting through paperwork in an attempt to unravel and recoup undocumented loans to two other brothers.
Some amounts have been partially repaid while others had purportedly been forgiven, the brothers say.
Sarah says her inquiries have resulted in ill feeling between her and the two brothers. One sister has also told her to ”let it go”.
But Sarah believes their mother would not have wanted to see the other children disadvantaged.
And she says the brothers’ attitude rankles, given the vigilance she has shown for their mother’s affairs.
”If people are in debt, those not in debt can feel very resentful … for some people, this kind of financial disregard can cut very deep.”
Tales such as those of Sharon and Sarah are far from uncommon, says a senior psychologist at Psychology Melbourne, Darryl Hodgson.
Taking over a parent’s affairs is a flashpoint in many families and serious differences can mean that when mum or dad passes away, so do the ties that bind.
”I’ve seen some dreadful situations, estrangements for years and years, where there’s been disenchantment with the way one of the siblings is handling affairs,” Hodgson says.
”A family of several siblings can find themselves without a family after a badly organised estate.”
*Not her real name.
Top tips for families
1. Forward planning can mean fewer problems later. Encourage parents to have a power of attorney in place and to make their plans and wishes known to all children, not just the one who has been put in charge.
2. If you’re acting under power of attorney, consult regularly with other siblings. Backbiting and resentment are less likely if decisions are made collaboratively.
3. Keep clear records of all dealings on the parents’ behalf and be prepared to share them.
4. Seek legal and financial advice early if significant property transactions or nursing homes are involved – mistakes are better avoided than rectified.
5. The parents’ best interests come first. If push comes to shove, their well-being should take precedence over sibling harmony.