How to Avoid Sibling Arguments Over Finances

July 11, 2016

The reality of a parent getting older is often tough for adult children, and one that can unfortunately lead to disagreements over finances, if their input is required  – whether it’s over Dad’s ability to make his own care decisions, or whether his money should be spent for in-home aids versus assisted living or nursing home care. And because these arguments often boil down to money, they can spark unhealthy dynamics among siblings – or fan the flames of those that already exist.

Despite these significant challenges, we’ve seen families work through these conversations and reach positive outcomes with relationships intact. It’s never easy, but there are strategies that can help siblings facing the tough task of having to make group financial decisions affecting an aging parent’s living situation and/or long term care.

First, take a step back from the stress and frustration and set some proactive goals together, both for your parent and for yourselves. What do you want for Dad as he ages – that he move out of his house right away and receive round-the-clock care? Or live independently for as long as possible? Chances are that, no matter what each of you thinks the financial outlay should be, you share the same hope that Dad lives as long as possible on his terms. For yourselves, take the long view and ask how you want to feel with one another when Dad’s gone. Of course, you’ll all want your fair share of any inheritance coming your way; but it’s likely you’ll care just as much about your relationship surviving, burdened by as little guilt and resentment as possible. While merely setting these goals is no guarantee you’ll reach them, it’s a helpful step in acknowledging the common ground you share, and one to consider if things get contentious.

Another very important tactic is to rely on third-party verification whenever possible. Too often siblings who are trying to make tough decisions rely on opinions coming from the child living closest to Dad, which is hugely problematic; it puts a disproportionate burden on her, and can cause friction if other siblings don’t agree, or don’t trust her ability to judge what’s needed. Instead, gather fact-based documents, like bills, or caretaker spending records; solicit neutral expert assessments from experienced professionals, like geriatric social workers and physicians. Tour assisted living or other potential communities together if possible, so you’re hearing the same information. Facts are stubborn things, as John Adams famously said – and they can often serve to neutralize conflicting (and usually well-meaning) interpretations of how best to invest to meet Dad’s needs.

If persistent conflict leads to an impasse, it’s often worthwhile and productive to consider elder mediation. Confidential, voluntary, and guided by trained professionals, elder mediation aims for consensus through compromise. Contrary to what some assume, it’s not family therapy; conflicts crop up, of course – but the goal is to make decisions, not heal relationships.  The parent is part of the conversation whenever possible, and the mediator will arrange for a geriatric assessment profile to make sure everyone’s working from the same information.

Mediation costs can vary widely, from no charge to hundreds of dollars an hour. It’s worth shopping around not only to compare costs but also to find the right fit for your family dynamic. There are some helpful organizations online to help, including the National Care Planning Council, Mediate, the National Conflict Resolution Center, and the National Association for Community Mediation.