Mom Always Liked You Best!
As a lawyer, the most important tool of my trade is my ability to foresee future conflict. All too often, I hear tales of family wars that could have been prevented with a little planning. That planning, of course, isn’t easy when it requires family members with complex relationships to come together during a stressful time and plan for an ailing loved one. Throw in some geographical limitations, a little sibling rivalry and a splash of financial stress and you have a recipe for an expensive and stressful lawsuit. And even conflicts that don’t end up in the courtroom can be draining and costly.
At the risk of reducing legal fees for my fellow attorneys everywhere, I offer this list of suggestions to help create a smooth system for your family:
1. Establish a decision-making plan and write it down. When siblings care for an aging parent, the potential for conflict is very much like it is with shared child custody; one person usually handles most of the day-to-day work, while others help from the sidelines. Most divorcing couples use lawyers and agreements to try and minimize the Kramer v. Kramer drama; a smart family will handle caregiving in a similar (but hopefully, simpler and cheaper) way. Siblings should draft a simple agreement that details which decisions the primary caregiver will make independently and which decisions require a family vote.
Thinking through these decisions serves a dual purpose: 1) it helps prepare the family to work as an effective unit; and 2) it also helps those who do not provide daily care get a clearer picture about the myriad things the primary caregiver is doing. Some families can handle making this plan around the dining room table with some coffee and a notebook, while others need the help of a lawyer or mediator. Either way, remember – if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
2. Schedule regular meetings. No less than once per month, siblings should meet in person or via telephone for a status conference on their loved one. When family members become practiced with discussing medical progress, financial decisions and day-to-day issues, the potential for conflict fades. As your loved one’s care progresses, the need for tools like a Power of Attorney or Healthcare Proxy may become clearer than it was at the start of care.
If, on some meeting days, there are no big decisions to discuss, great. But have the meeting anyway. Think of it as payback for all the time your parent or grandparent planned for your well-being even when there was no crisis brewing.
3. Organize your calendar with “appointment days”. Caring for an aging parent wreaks havoc on the calendar. Putting one day each week aside for medical and other necessary appointments is one way of maintaining predictability and control over a caregiver’s schedule. And there’s also an additional benefit – it makes the schedule predictable to others. When the primary caregiver is on vacation, a “Doctor Day” will make it easier for other siblings to step in assist.
4. Delegate responsibilities based on personal strengths. The daily caregiving may have fallen to one sibling due to circumstance, but other facets of care can and should be delegated strategically. For example, if Brother is tech-savvy, he might be best to conduct online research or handle online banking. If Sister drives her kids around town in her minivan, she could be best to deliver grocery orders or medication. In a crisis, people assist in an ad-hoc way. But for the long term, a solid plan that takes into account people’s strengths, resources, and availability is key.
5. Keep finances transparent. Primary caregivers shoulder an enormous – sometimes crippling burden. It’s natural for someone who made significant sacrifices to feel that an equal distribution of assets is unfair. But sticking by Mom’s side through a long illness does not entitle you to a larger share of her estate when she passes. Settling of financial matters needs to be done during the caregiving – not after it. There are a variety of ways a caregiver avoid comingling personal and caregiving finances – using trusts, separate bank accounts, dedicated debit cards, financial software, etc. Clear communication among siblings about how the primary caregiver will be reimbursed for expenses is probably the most critical communication a family can have during a prolonged period of care. Some things really are “just business” and “not personal.”
There is no perfect system of shared caregiving. Families have different strengths, different challenges, and different resources at their disposal. But no matter what your own family dynamics, good planning and open communication will promote harmony among siblings. The first time a group of siblings meet to discuss a parent’s care may be a bit rocky – but working together as a unit is a skill that will improve with practice. And don’t forget – you’re not alone! Experienced professionals, such as lawyers or mediators can provide valuable proactive guidance to your family in a less stressful and less expensive way than handling a conflict later.