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The Moneyist: My mom has dementia. My sister moved in and wants to buy the family home — at 50% of the market value

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Dear Quentin,

My mom has documented dementia. She is high functioning, but she has been told not to drive.  She has written duplicate checks unknowingly, and has been overdrawn several times in recent years. 

My sister recently convinced our mom to put her as a signatory on her checking account so she can write checks. My sibling has moved in to look after her. Both actions I approve of. There are other actions, however, I do not approve of.


‘I told my sibling that I would be okay with a life estate. But she want mom’s house.’

When mom has been in need of money before, I have suggested a reverse mortgage, which our mom adamantly opposed. She loves her house and her yard. We have not declared her incompetent, and we do not want to.

My sibling is also selling their own home, and now states they are trying to convince mom to sell her house to her. The amount they suggested is less than 50% of estimated market value with the goal of having a place to live after mom dies. 

I told my sibling that I would be okay with a life estate. But she want mom’s house.
As of today, mom clearly does not want to sell her house. How do I protect mom from being convinced to sell her house?

Long-Distant Child

Dear Long Distant,

If your mother has progressive dementia, and if her disease has taken its toll on her financial judgement, you need to formalize her care, and financial responsibilities, and consider what decisions you may face in a year or more. It’s good that your sister is there to help, but it also seems as if she is there to help herself.

You have been forewarned about your sister’s intentions. Selling your mother’s home at 50% of the market value, aside from being a disservice to your mother and opportunistic of your sister, could be disastrous for your mother if she needs long-term care, and there’s no money to take care of her.

The more dependent your mother becomes on your sister, the more susceptible she will become to making decisions that benefit your sister more than even herself. And that’s a problem. Case in point: A life estate was a generous solution for your sister, but she clearly wants the whole kit and kaboodle.


‘The more dependent your mother becomes on your sister, the more susceptible she will become to making decisions that benefit your sister more than even herself.’

If your sister files for power of attorney over your mother’s finances, she would have a fiduciary duty to act in her best interest. However, such a role also comes with significant legal clout, including the ability to sell your mother’s house. Selling it below market value would be a breach of her fiduciary trust.

In situations such as this, Kern Singh, founder of Singh Law Firm in Fremont, Calif., suggests consulting an estate planning attorney who specializes in Elder Law with a background in obtaining power of attorney and/or conservatorships.  The attorney can meet with your mother, and review her medical history.

An attorney will decide if your mother mom has the capacity to make decisions, and if can she sign a power of attorney. Conservatorship typically happens after a person has become incapacitated. Your mother’s affairs look in need of oversight and protection now, and it’s better to act preemptively.

Family dynamics at this juncture can be ruined if they do not see eye to eye and money/greed gets in the way,” Singh says. As such, it’s better to prepare than wait until your hand is forced, and you are acting in response to a medical crisis or some other financial impropriety.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.

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