Until my mother became incapacitated and moved into a nursing home, I was her main caregiver. Although my sister lived with her, I came by each day to attend to her meds and other needs. Still, my mother gave my sister durable power of attorney (POA). She told me she did this to avoid hurting my sister's feelings. My mother's will splits everything between us, but my sister refuses to tell me about Mom's finances or estate. Is a financial statement required from the sibling with POA to the others mentioned in the will?
Name Withheld, Philadelphia
Many things are wrong with this picture. Start with your relationship as sisters. You feel you were your mother's main caregiver, but your sister might be thinking, "She has no idea what I did, living with Mom and caring for her around the clock." At best, your sister is handling the money responsibly but doesn't want to be micromanaged--or she's withholding information to inflict psychic punishment on you. At worst, she's using the POA to raid your mother's assets for her own benefit. That's harsh, but if it turns out to be true, you can be sure she thinks she deserves the money and you don't.
The second thing wrong here is the POA. Most are all encompassing and require no disclosure, making them vulnerable to wholesale abuse. Most family members wielding POAs don't understand they are fiduciaries who are legally bound to keep accurate records and receipts. In most states, they are forbidden to make gifts to themselves or anyone else. When they break those rules, they are almost never prosecuted.
But you are not helpless. Many states offer heirs some protections. In Pennsylvania, notes Jeffrey Marshall, a certified elder-law attorney in Williamsport, Pa., you can hire a lawyer and go to court to "seek an accounting." More usual and costly is a guardianship suit, by which you seek to become your mother's legal guardian, revoking the POA. Alternatively, you could call adult protective services to investigate a suspected case of financial abuse.
Why not hire a lawyer to write to your sister, requesting access to the books? If she balks, consider taking one of the legal options above, depending on the size of your mother's estate and whether you hope ever to improve relations with your sister. Her POA ends with your mother's death. If she's also your mother's executor, however, then you would have to go to probate court for relief. But if you don't act before then, you may be left with nothing but an expensive lawsuit and a hollow feeling in your gut.
Got a question? E-mail Francine at firstname.lastname@example.org