The Moneyist: I took care of my late mother for 8 years. Am I obliged to tell my sisters she made me co-owner of a substantial bank account?
My mom passed away. Three daughters shared power of attorney and are shared executors of her trust.
As the youngest daughter, I worked full time, and was the primary caregiver for my mom for 8 years. I managed her activities of living, food, bathroom visits, medicine, medical appointments, and performed her dialysis etc. I managed her finances, including taxes, investments, and even reclaimed thousands of dollars for my mom due to a bad business deal she was involved in the past.
In 2013, it upset my sisters when I was initially given POA, but I decided to share the responsibility and even enlisted an attorney to formally draft a trust. We were all present during this conversation. Years later, my sisters would only come down 2 times a year (sometimes less) to visit mom and did not do much at all to contribute to her care.
‘My conscience is getting the better of me, and I would like to be transparent about being the joint owner of this savings account.’
My mom received a pension and Social Security benefits, so she also had the means to afford a full-time caregiver during the days when I was at work (40 hours a week) for at least 2 years. I oversaw all of her care during the evenings, even when we went on vacation with her. Long-term care would have cost substantially more, and would have exhausted my mom’s finances. My mom also wished to remain and receive care at home.
In order to appease my sisters and because they felt it was not fair that I inherited a house from my father (their stepfather) who also passed in 2013, I decided to disinherit a portion of my mom’s investments/annuities.
My mom was upset about this, and asked me to be a joint owner on her savings account in 2013, after we met with her attorney. Since then, I cared for her in our house and even responsibly managed her finances, which gained significant interest over the years.
Now that my mom has passed, we are going to discuss her estate which is significant and most of the beneficiaries on the account are my sisters — except for the joint savings account, which has a large sum of liquid cash in it.
‘Long-term care would have cost substantially more, and would have exhausted my mom’s finances. My mom also wished to remain and receive care at home.’
My conscience is getting the better of me, and I would like to be transparent about being the joint owner of this savings account. However, I do not feel they are entitled to any of the money in it as they hardly participated in the care and financial support of our mom.
We all had POA, but they did not do much to help, and it is now irrelevant anyway. However, my sisters are also listed as paid on death (POD) beneficiaries. I am willing to divide her estate fairly and distribute the amount to be received by each sister equitably.
Am I obligated to inform them of this joint savings account? I have already informed the bank, Social Security, her credit-card companies, and her retirement pension that she has passed. As the joint owner, I have access to her account by survivorship.
How should I discuss the “equitable” distribution with my sisters? They will be coming down in a week and a half to attend her funeral. I plan to have this conversation with them the next day after the funeral, and before they leave. We are cordial and I am close with one sister but when finances and heightened emotions are involved, it can get hairy.
Saddened by the Loss of Mom and Suffering from Inheritance Guilt
Dear Saddened and Guilt-Ridden,
It sounds like you would feel better if you were transparent about all of your mother’s finances. The joint bank account and its contents are technically your finances now, of course, so you are under no obligation to tell them about it. However, should they discover this account and ask questions about it, it could look to them as if you are hiding something, even when you have nothing to hide. This account does not have to go through probate at all, so that is not a given.
When you are faced with a difficult situation, I have always found that the easiest way through it is to tell the truth as bluntly as you need to, without rancor and without fear. Your sisters may shrug their shoulders and say, “Fair enough.” Or they might cry foul. If they had a problem with your father leaving you his home, it’s probably fair to say that at least one of your siblings will raise an eyebrow at the amount of money in this account. If you divulge the digits.
But you know what? Tough. Say it aloud after me. One, two, three: “TOUGH!” They had plenty of time to help out with your mother over the last 8 years, and I’m sure they had a million reasons why they couldn’t be there. Paid-on-death beneficiaries only inherit money from a joint account when the last owner dies so, even if you predecease your sisters, you are under no obligation to do anything else but spend every last dime in that account, if you so choose. If you do? “TOUGH!”
Tell them: “Mother made me the joint owner on her bank account, and I’m very grateful that she did.” If it makes you feel better to tell them, but be sure that you will not be guilted into dividing this among them. Ask yourself: Do you feel guilty about having this account (you don’t have to) or do you feel fearful about your sisters’ reactions should they learn about it from you or someone else? It would help to know the root of your anxiety before making your decision.
If you decide not to tell them, that’s fine. Just ask your lawyer first. There is no right or wrong ethical answer to this question. You must do what feels right to you, but make sure you do it for the right reasons. Don’t act out of fear or guilt, and don’t not act out of fear and guilt. Do what your most confident, comfortable self would do. Say nothing and whistle all your way to the bank, or say something and silently whistle your way through your sisters’ possible protestations.
You have the full support of The Moneyist either way.
Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.