I took over my mom’s finances and now I’m worried I’m screwing things up

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Since I took over my mother’s finances as her power of attorney a few months ago, I’ve been doing something she might not approve of, and it’s weighing on me.

We had a big talk about managing her finances during a recent visit, but even though we put a lot of cards on the table, there was one thing I couldn’t tell her: I have been electronically depositing checks for her. 

I know it isn’t much of a transgression, but that’s not how she does things. Even in her most perilous state previously, she would get herself into the car and do her banking at the drive-through at her local branch. When she needed to, she’d have her caretaker drive her and she’d hand over the paperwork from the passenger seat. Occasionally, she’d call the toll-free number for the bank and check her balance over the phone. But never, ever would she snap an image of a check and deposit it using her phone. My mom is only 76 and can text with emojis, but some things are just a bridge too far. 

To her credit — and maybe as a concession to her current illness and incapacity as she recovers from surgery in a rehab facility — she hasn’t asked me how her checks are getting into the bank when I’m mostly in New York and she’s in Florida. It’s all happening and she’s trusting me, and that’s what matters to us both. 

But the guilt …

It’s not easy to step in and take over somebody else’s financial life, but caregivers do this every day for loved ones. I thought I’d be prepared since I have financial training and do pretty well managing my own money. But no matter your level of financial education, there are still sticky old emotions to deal with. No parent-child relationship comes without some tension. 

My mom is superhumanly organized and one of the most competent adults you’ll ever meet. She set things up pretty well for me with caregiving cheat sheets because she knew she was going to have surgery last fall and didn’t know what the outcome might be. But still, when I first dove in, I had to be something of a forensic accountant. At that point, she wasn’t really able to answer many questions. I had to pick through her mail and stacks of paperwork to find what I needed. 

It felt creepy, like an invasion of privacy. I suddenly knew exact bank balances, and in looking at credit card statements I could see what she had spent on groceries and other household items over the previous few months. Nothing was sordid — her biggest vice was buying pay-per-view movies because she gets bored with Netflix
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and HGTV. And her biggest expense was her caregivers — when I added it up I was shocked at the cost and at the long-term-care insurance paperwork involved in managing it all. But still, we usually only have a cursory view of other people’s lives, and diving deep into all the details is unnerving. 

Taking on the taxman

Because her illness continued into April, I also had to deal with my mom’s taxes. Most of what I learned about finances growing up was because my mom was obsessed with taxes. I wouldn’t say she passed on a love of the topic to me — more like an extreme gamesmanship about how to stick it to the IRS. My parents were audited multiple times when I was little. We think it had something to do with the fact that my father was a college professor with a side hustle as a writer, and that triggered a red flag about all his deductions. It made my mother meticulous about recordkeeping. 

Every year in March, my mother would take over the dining-room table and pull out her shoeboxes of receipts and little diaries filled with explanations of each expense. Nobody touched her piles. I was afraid to walk quickly through the room lest I ruffle a stack. My mom’s most legendary achievement was after we spent a year in Europe in the mid-1980s when my father had a grant. The dollar was fluctuating wildly against the various pre-euro currencies in the countries where we traveled, and my mom kept a journal of the exchange rate each day that we were there and of what purchases we made at each rate in each country. After the inevitable audit, the IRS owed us money. 

This year, I managed to get the major paperwork to the accountant (uploaded to the portal instead of handed over in an in-person meeting) and file an extension. I didn’t have a legal pad where I parsed out all the numbers in advance. And I didn’t pass along any receipts. It got the job done, but it felt like cheating. 

The biggest conversation

Looking at the big number was the most challenging for us. How much money does my mom have left and how much are we comfortable spending now? The “we” part of that was probably something we should have started with a while back, as a family, because it affects all of us. If my mom spends down her assets, my brother and I will have to pick up the slack. But if she skimps on what she needs today to fulfill her wish to leave something behind for her grandchildren, what’s the point of that? 

At the end of the day, it’s still my mom’s decision. She’s feeling better and can handle most things. I know this because one day recently she called me out of the blue and asked about a $14.99 charge on her credit card bill that she didn’t recognize. I had just been paying the bill via the automated system and not really looking at every charge. She caught me. 

When we were last talking, I told her that my goal was just for her to see that she had taught me well, and that I was able to handle her finances to some degree of satisfaction, even if it’s not quite as good as she would do. She told me she was proud of me and that she wanted me to continue handling things for her going forward. 

When she reads this, she’ll find out about the check deposits, but I think she’ll forgive me. 

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