Dear Newsweek, my dad passed away in 2021. Since that time, my two older sisters and I have taken over caring for my mom. My oldest sister lives around 30 minutes away from my mom in Michigan. Her job allowed her to choose remote work, so she typically works from my mom’s house Monday through Friday. There are some days where she has to be elsewhere, but it isn’t too frequent. I live in Georgia and my other sister lives in Florida.
My parents have been very generous to us all our lives—monetary gifts for birthdays and Christmas have never been missed. On September 20, the Florida sister asked to be reimbursed $3,000 for her recent trips to Michigan in August and September. She is listing the cost of hotels, Airbnb stays, gas and a $41 food charge where my mom’s credit card was denied. But she actually used my mom’s card for a $1,165 Airbnb charge. So, if you consider that, it’s actually asking my mom to cover over $4,200 of her expenses.
In August, our mom gave us each $5,000 out of nowhere—just to say thank you for all we do for her. So, for my sister to ask for reimbursement seems very inappropriate to me.
My dad was a very frugal man and left us all the money we will most likely need to care for my mom until her time comes. This is to say that the funds are there, so it isn’t an issue of how to come up the money to reimburse her that is bothering me. It is more a problem of vastly different opinions of what is appropriate. She had the gall to actually say “Why do I have to use $3,000 of my gift for trips to Michigan?” It comes across as completely ungrateful for the gift and as not understanding that our mom is our responsibility and that family obligations are not something to be reimbursed for.
These two trips were her only visits so far this year. I may be open to looking at things differently if the trip frequency were higher or if my mom’s care was more “serious/involved” or if she went above and beyond in helping out. She hasn’t had a real job in six years and she always seems to help from a distance even when there in person.
She doesn’t spend that much time with my mom when she is in town. She refuses to stay at my mom’s house, where there is a guest bedroom and bathroom to use, for her “mental health.” That also is her choice—there is a free place to stay yet she chooses to stay at hotels or Airbnbs. Why is that something my mom should pay for? When I go to Michigan, I view it as my time to get things done around the house for my mom and to spend time with her, so I stay there with her.
Neither I nor my Michigan sister has ever asked for reimbursements. I have told both of them that I don’t think this is right. But then the Michigan sister is fearful of losing the Florida sister’s help and doesn’t want money to come between us. So, she wants the Florida sister to be given some sort of reimbursement and for me as well, for my recent trip, which I have repeatedly said I do not want to be reimbursed. But how do we determine how much is fair? And what is this setting us up for going forward? Is her going to Michigan going to be contingent on payment?
It’s very upsetting to me that she has opened this can of worms. They have been waiting on action from me since part of my responsibilities are handling all of the finances. Also, I’m my mom’s future financial POA [power of attorney] when that time comes. I tried to ask for a group call with mom so that we are all on the same page in hopes of coming to some sort of resolution.
I’m aware that the money is my mom’s and she can do as she wishes. I’m merely supposed to process the transaction at this point. But they tried to say that my mom doesn’t understand these things and didn’t get her in on the call, which to me seems like a convenient excuse and also perhaps a sign that they know this isn’t right. I feel like I’m going to have to end up sending her money. But can I lessen the amount? If so, how do I determine what amount to give her?
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Have a Family Meeting
Jennifer Kelman is a therapist for the JustAnswer website, a licensed clinical social worker and relationships expert.
I think at this time your sister is asking for something that is a bit above and beyond. There are times where we all need to step up and care for family members, and if it becomes a source of financial difficulty to make these trips, or your sister is losing money elsewhere because of the trips, then perhaps you all sit down and have a conversation about how to reimburse for various things. But as you said, your sister has the ability to stay with your mom but chooses not to, so those expenses that she has incurred are by her choice.
I do think it would serve all of you to have a family meeting. Not necessarily with your mom because she may end up feeling like a burden to all of you. But just with the sisters where you discuss what the responsibility is for each of you. You can let your sister know that she will not be reimbursed for staying elsewhere, but if there are incidental expenses moving forward, that maybe you can all come together and decide what seems fair for everyone.
The last thing you want is for this to cause a major blowup between all of you. So, let your sister know that you are happy to discuss what she feels and needs around this, but that there are also boundaries around it, such as staying with your mom when she travels there. The goal is to provide comfort to your mom, so it is a time for everyone to come together and do what is necessary to make that happen.
Establish Clear Expectations
Dr. Hans Watson is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist and trauma expert based in South Jordan, Utah.
You and your sisters have a common case of unspoken expectations. Because the expectations for helping or reimbursement have never been clearly defined, each side has made assumptions on what is fair and what is unfair and those are clearly not in line with each other.
Therefore, the only way forward where there will not be hard feelings would be to establish clear expectations and ensure that everybody is on the same page. While this does have the possibility of introducing disagreements, there is a 100 percent chance that if you do not establish clear expectations, there will be disagreements and even deeper hurt feelings.
I also agree that it would be wise for you to involve your mother in how her money is used as it will take reduce the ability for a child to blame a sibling for the expectations established.
In this case, you’re going to have to endure some temporary discomfort in order to have long-term resolution of these hurt feelings.
Your Mom Needs To Be a Part of the Process
Craig Kain is a licensed psychologist based in Long Beach, California.
Your current crisis really centers on your mom’s role in making her own decisions.
Since your mom is still alive, paying for your Florida sister’s expenses is not your choice, nor your Michigan sister’s choice to make. Unless some dramatic change to your mom’s mental capacity recently occurred, since she was sharp enough to give each of you a $5,000 gift in August (which you all appear to have accepted), she is capable of deciding for herself whether or not your sister should have her expenses reimbursed.
You are correct in asking whether this current conflict sets you and your sisters up for more conflict moving forward. Now is the time to prevent further arguments by creating guidelines outlining how to handle expenses associated with your mom’s care.
Despite what your sisters think, for her own well-being, your mom absolutely needs to be a part of this process. Staying active and independent as long as possible is an essential part of your mom’s mental health. This includes making her own sound financial decisions. Keep in mind that just because a decision is not what you want, or what you think is fair, does not make it unsound.
The most important aspect of these guidelines is that they are clear, specific, mutually agreed upon, and put down in writing so there are no misunderstandings later. If you, your sisters and your mom are unable to do this on your own, a session with a family therapist may prove useful.
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