Monday, September 21, 2015

Should You Take Care of Mom?

Is it your obligation as a child to take care of your parents?  

In some other postings, I alluded to a story about two friends of mine and their Mom.   Mom and Dad had six children, many of them successful.  Dad died, and Mom had to live on her own.  She quickly ran through what money her husband left her, mostly through foolish schemes, poor spending choices and whatnot.   In short order, she became destitute and debtors were hounding her daily.

Her daughter thought she should help out Mom.   The other five children - one of whom was a doctor - declined to get involved, even if only financially.  There was a lot of history in the family, and they knew that Mom was plum crazy.

So the son-in-law (daughter's husband) goes through her finances and discovers they are in a wreck.  She has no assets other than an old Ford Escort, and tons of credit card debt.  She is barely getting by on Social Security and has no other income.   He researches her options and finds that she is eligible for a rent-subsidized senior apartment, that will cut her monthly living expenses in half and give her room to breathe.

He calls the creditors and explains the situation - she has no money to pay these bills, and they cannot go after her assets as she has none.   They agree to take a token amount in monthly payment, and he cuts up the credit cards.   Son-in-law and daughter save the day!

Mom's car is working OK, but the tires are worn out, so son-in-law goes to the tire shop and buys her a new set of tires.   Mom should be set for at least a while.   Of course, daughter is not happy the other siblings won't help out with some of the costs incurred moving and such.

Two weeks later, Mom shows up at their house in a new car.  Well, not a brand-new car, but a used sporty model in red.   "Look!" she cries, "I bought a new car!  The man at the used car lot said I could afford it!"

The son-in-law hangs his head and groans.  He's riding on nearly bald tires on his old Volvo, and could have used the money he spent on his Mother-in-law's tires for himself.  Moreover, he knows how this will play out - Mom can't really afford the car and it will likely be repossessed down the road, leaving her without any transportation.

And when it all goes wrong, yet again, he and his wife will be called upon to bail out his Mother-in-law.

What is the moral of this?   Are you obligated to help out other family members, even if they are spendthifts, lazy, or just parasites?  (Or crazy?).

In a way, this is a cultural thing.  A Korean friend of mine told me he had three cars.  I said that was a lot of cars for a young law associate.  But he explained that one was for his sister and another for his brother.  As the "successful" member of the family, his parents expected him to support the less successful members - even if they were just lazy and unmotivated (hey, free cars, why work?).

Sadly, later on in life, he ended up running his own firm and was heavily in debt.  I wonder if his siblings helped him out then?  Of course, the answer is "no".

And others of other cultures have told me the same thing - that they feel obligated to support their parents, siblings, and others, because of cultural values.  Of course, they often come from countries where there is no Social Security or other safety net, and without familial support, people would starve to death.

But in America, this "helping out" often amounts to buying cars, or as I noted in another posting, the monthly stipend of $500 which the deadbeats all seem to want.

So what is the answer?   It is a personal question and you have to answer it for yourself.  But do ask yourself why you are doing it.  For many, it is a chance to play the big-shot, by doling out money to family members, who in turn, have to dance to your tune.  That is a sick way of thinking, but many people do it - of course none would admit to it.

With my friends with Crazy Mom, their efforts were immediately short-circuited.  They found ways for Mom to live a more comfortable existence, and she immediately went further into debt as if to compensate.  I am sure she got a new credit card, too, probably at 25% interest.

She was able to take care of herself, although eventually, if she lived long enough, she would have to be put in a home or someone appointed by a court to be her custodian.   A friend of mine with through this with her Father and all I can say is, it was a total nightmare.   I would not have blamed her for walking away from the whole mess and letting the County or State take control of his life.   But then again, there was a sizable inheritance involved in that case.

I am fortunate that I do not have to make such a difficult choice.  My parents set aside enough money to live comfortably, and I don't have to worry about them (particularly now that they are dead.   I was talking to someone about parents the other day, and they asked where mine lived.  I replied "Arlington......" and he said, "That's a nice place!" and I continued, "...cemetary!"  Sometimes the once-a-year visit with flowers is the best kind!).

Others have a more difficult choice, particularly if there is no one else in the family to take care of their parents (e.g., only child).

For siblings and other relatives, though, I think the question is a lot easier.  Unless they have some handicap, mental or physical, that prevents them from working on their own, doling out money doesn't serve to help them so much as make them dependent upon you.  And again, the psychological motivations for doling out money to siblings is often rather messy.    I know firsthand a few folks who do this and get off on playing the big brother or whatever - and expecting their siblings to respect them.  Sadly, it rarely works.  When you give money to people, oddly enough, they often end up resenting you.

Think long and hard before you decide it is your job to "rescue" someone else, particularly if the person needing rescue doesn't really need your help.  Someone claiming "I'm drowning" when they are standing in the kiddie pool is not crying for help, but just wants attention.   Someone who mismanages their own affairs to the point of being broke isn't often helped by throwing more money at them.