The Moneyist: My mother lives in poverty and spends everything I give her — should I stop paying her debts?

Dear Moneyist,

I would like to know your advice about how adult children can protect themselves from the financial obligations of their parents.

My brother and I were raised in poverty and my mother still lives beneath the poverty line with government assistance covering some of her expenses. She has many medical issues and does not work. She is approaching 70 years of age.

My brother has a wife and two children and lives in another state. I am married with no children and live a few miles from my mother. We both have decent jobs and are what I would consider middle-class suburbanites.

Our relationship with my mother has been strained for many years. There is not a lot of contact between my brother and our mother, or expectation of assistance emotionally or financially. It has been this way for many years. There are no hard feelings on this front. My relationship with my brother is strong.

I have assisted my mom financially since I started working as a teenager. About 10 years ago, I got married and bought a house, had a very demanding job plus responsibility for my mother’s medical, financial and emotional well-being. When I had medical issues of my own, it was all too much to handle and I landed in therapy.

Read: I (secretly) charge an hourly rate for caring for my mom

While I still care for and provide for my mother, I learned the co-dependent relationship I had with her was unhealthy and I have scaled back significantly.

I pay for her to have high-speed internet service at her home. I activated the service to be able to work from her house during a stretch of major medical issues where she needed someone to be with her. She now has a home health aide (government provided) three days a week and I have not found myself in that situation in over a year, but I still consider the Wi-Fi insurance, so I keep it. I also include her on my family cellphone plan. I bring her household items and groceries on every visit.

I no longer pay for any more of her debt. She uses her money on things I would consider careless and frivolous, but it is her money and I no longer intervene or express my frustration.

Cindy in N.Y.

I no longer pay for any more of her debt. She uses her money on things I would consider careless and frivolous, but it is her money and I no longer intervene or express my frustration. She finds herself in a bind on occasion, having things like her cable TV or her land line phone terminated.

She frequently gets calls and letters from collection agencies. These were things she would bring to my attention in the past and I would pay past-due balances, late fees and reconnection fees — regularly. I no longer offer to do that. Over the years she has gotten the message and she really doesn’t push them on me anymore. It has relieved a lot of stress from my relationship with her. However, now they are just ignored and pile up without any action.

Today, it is very important to me to focus on my well-being, which means not returning to our previous relationship which left me damaged financially and emotionally. At the same time I have a lot of stress and anxiety about where this will leave me if and when (a) she passes on, (b) a decision has to be made to change her living situation (in my home or a nursing home) or (c) something major happens, like a legal judgment against her.

My husband is financially smart. Without him, I would have likely traveled down the same financial road as my mother. With him, I have had the guidance and support to pay off years of mounting debt, buy a house and start saving for retirement. The thought of taking a hit to everything we have worked so hard to build causes a lot of stress. My husband has concerns about me not acquiring her debt and/or expenses when the time comes and he feels it will destroy us financially. I don’t disagree with him. I just struggle with doing right by everyone.

I don’t know what I would be responsible for financially as her daughter when she is truly incapable. I’m not sure if it’s smarter to move her in with us or start to look into assisted living/nursing homes, especially if covered by the government programs that have covered her all these years.

What could I be doing prepare or protect myself financially?

Cindy in N.Y.

Dear Cindy,

Rarely has a letter moved me as much as yours. You have created a wonderful life for yourself and done so without becoming hard of heart to those in your life or bitter about the past. You have maintained a strong relationship with your brother and a relationship with your mother that is based on love and service, while maintaining healthy emotional and financial boundaries. You have since learned that you can’t do everything, nor should you have to do everything.

I’m glad that you finally realized that you cannot live her life for her. You deserve a happy life, one where you are free to enjoy the small moments and look forward to a secure future. That’s nothing to feel guilty about. Plenty of children would have walked away. You didn’t. This is something that your mother was either unable or unwilling to provide for you. In the face of remarkable odds, you provided it for yourself. And yet you are still thinking of others.

You deserve a happy life, one where you are free to enjoy the small moments and look forward to a secure future.

The Moneyist

“Moving your mom in with you seems to run counter to your desire to maintain healthy boundaries,” says Anne Tumlinson, founder of Daughterhood, a Washington, DC-based organization that provides information and resources to people caring for aging parents. “That’s not necessary in New York. Additionally, your mother is already obviously on Medicaid so you don’t need to worry about whether your mother will qualify, which is usually a huge thing given people’s assets and incomes that usually need to be spent-down first.”

You are not alone. An estimated 43.5 million adults in the U.S. have provided unpaid care to an adult or a child within the prior 12 months, according to the 2015 report “Caregiving in the U.S.” by the AARP Public Policy Institute, the advocacy group for Americans aged 50 years and older. More than 18% of the respondents interviewed reported being caregivers. The majority of caregivers are female (60%), the AARP said, and the average caregiver is 49 years of age.

It’s highly unlikely that you would be held responsible for your mother’s debts when she passes on. Don’t co-sign any loans and maintain a clear line between her finances and your own and keep an eye on your credit score, in the unlikely event that your mother would take out a loan in your name (especially if you shared the same first name). “Unless you are a co-signer on a debt, you are in no way liable for your mother’s debts,” says Blake Harris, an attorney at Mile High Estate Planning in Denver. “There isn’t anything you need to do aside from continuing to follow your husband’s wise financial advice.”

Some 28 U.S. states have so-called filial responsibility laws, which can be traced back to colonial times and (in theory) impose a duty on adult children to support their impoverished parents. Those states don’t include New York. Here’s a list of the other 28 that do have those laws, even if they don’t practice them. One of those states is Pennsylvania, which did use filial responsibility to force an adult child to pay his mother’s bill. In 2012, Pennsylvania court ruled that John Pittas must pay his mother’s $93,000 nursing home bill after she moved to Greece. Otherwise, they are rarely enforced.

The AARP and other organizations have helpful guides for preparing to care for an elderly parent. This includes figuring out what your mother’s needs might be and forming a team (that includes your brother and husband). There are many online resources to see if she qualifies for public benefits of state, federal, and private programs that help pay for groceries, prescription drugs, health insurance and home help. The best time to think about these issues is now, before there’s a crisis. And, as my former colleague Elizabeth O’Brien wrote, take care of yourself too.

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