The Moneyist: I’m 81 and signed over my life savings to my son to manage my finances, but he told me he’s keeping it

Original post

Dear Moneyist,

For many years now I am reading your stories about fellow human beings in trouble. Never would I have thought that I would need your help too.

I am an 81-year old disabled senior who worked very hard all my life, never took vacations or spent money on myself. After my divorce in 1964 I raised my son alone and always took priority in caring for him and saving money, just in case that something happened to me and he would be alone.

He became an artist, always hungry. Thus, it was without question that I supported him financially whenever need would arise. I am not talking about $1,000 or $5,000, but $10,000 and $20,000. I was confident that I had raised a very good human being and son. Luckily due to my hard work and long hours I was able to financially secure myself.

‘I am absolutely disheartened, as my son refuses to transfer my life savings back into my name.’

Now that I arrived at age 81 years I planned to move into a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). Having read scary stories about how these facilities can take over your money, I discussed this with my son and when he suggested that I put my savings in his name to protect my assets, it sounded right to me.

And so a few months ago, I transferred most of my savings into his name. He promised to be a good steward of these assets.

Don’t miss: My husband grew up dirt poor and doesn’t believe in insurance or banks, yet he racked up $7,000 on my credit card

Unfortunately, my plan to move into this CCRC did not materialize and, instead, I moved into a very modest rental community. Fourteen years ago I had developed an autoimmune condition, which makes me vulnerable to infections caused by impurities. I realized that I indeed would have to move to a “better” environment.

Now, I am absolutely disheartened, as my son refuses to transfer my life savings back into my name, so that I would qualify to move into a better environment, where they do require evidence of a certain amount of assets.

‘I tried to reason with my son, requesting only part of the assets back, which I need to move into another senior community.’

I tried to reason with my 56-year-old son, requesting only part of the assets back, which I need to move into another senior community, but to no avail. I feel abused as an elderly person and do not know where to turn to get some help or legal advice about what to do when a child takes advantage of an old parent.

Of course, in hindsight I recall having always read that one should not give their children one’s savings. But I thought that my son, whom I always put before me and financially supported, would not be such a heartless and greedy person.

Please help me with some way out of this dilemma; I am so hurt, have pains caused by all this stress and fear that I am slipping into a depression. I will be very grateful for any advice you might be able to give me.

Brokenhearted father

Dear Brokenhearted,

When you reached the point in your letter where you said your had signed over your savings account, my heart sank. I knew how this would end. Not that I’m clairvoyant, but because (a) people do bad things, (b) that was a riskier position than, say, giving him health-care power of attorney or trust and (c) you were writing a letter to the Moneyist and, the nature of the beast, is that they often end badly.

There is a legal precedent of ‘unjust enrichment.’ That means it wasn’t merely a gift, but there were strings attached.

The good news is this only happened a few months ago. Of course, it’s far more difficult to retrieve money that has been spent or squandered or hidden away. But you have time on your side, and you should alert you should immediately hire an elder care lawyer who specializes in such cases and contact your bank. You are an elderly man at a vulnerable time in your life. The law is (should be) on your side.

Speaking of which, Geoffrey Kunkler, an estate attorney with the law firm Carlile, Patchen & Murphy in Columbus, Ohio, says if you had worked with a lawyer in advance, he could have created a trust naming your son as trustee and beneficiary, while retaining the ability to change the trustee and also to change the beneficiaries. “This ensures that you would retain certain controls to be able to recoup the funds.”

Also see: I earn $15 an hour and will inherit $150,000 — how do I secure my financial future?

Now for the bad news: “It might be too late to undo the gift without the cooperation of the son — he may not be able to force the son to unring this bell,” Kunkler added. “This would be the case if this really was a true gift, meaning there were no conditions to the gift — no strings attached. If that is the case there would not be much he could do legally.” Also, if you were intending to hide assets, be clear with your lawyer, as that could come back to bite you later.

You could have a family intervention. But your son would dilly-dally, putz and futz, and drag this out interminably.

But. You knew that was coming. Or, at least, you hoped it was coming. Kunkler points out that there is a legal precedent known as “unjust enrichment.” That means it wasn’t merely a gift, but there were strings attached. From what you say in your letter, this was all for a greater purpose, to ensure you — not your son — were taken care of later in life.

There must be a paper trail of emails and, under oath, you could swear to the conditions and context under which this money was transferred. Oral agreements are tricky to prove, but I urge you to throw down the gauntlet and use the full force of the law. As with so many such cases, family remembers rely on those relationships for reasons not to take legal action.

Recommended: I earn $15 an hour and will inherit $150,000 — how do I secure my financial future?

“You could argue that you held up you end of the deal in transferring the funds, but you son has breached the agreement by not safeguarding the funds for your benefit,” Kunkler says. “This could require sending a demand letter to the son or even the filing of a formal complaint to initiate a lawsuit.” Such cases, he adds, often take persuasion. You owe it to yourself to pursue this.

Adult Protective Services will investigate and assess referrals of abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation.

Alternatively, family counseling and mediation are the only options left open to you. A family intervention as a kind of emotional or moral leverage might move your son in the right direction. From what you say, however, my hunch is your son would dilly-dally, putz and futz, obfuscate and drag this out interminably until your time on this earth is over and he keeps your life savings.

Aside from contacting a lawyer and your bank, Marc Lowlicht, a certified financial planner and CEO of OPES, Private Wealth Management, suggests you go to Adult Protective Services. It’s provided by local social services districts. It will investigate and assess referrals of abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation or impaired or vulnerable adults.

You be an example for your son. If someone tries to cheat you, advocate for yourself and come out fighting. It can be your final and most valuable lesson of all. Whether he decides to learn from it, of course, is entirely up to him.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

Would you like to sign up to an email alert when a new Moneyist column has been published? If so, click on this link.

Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

Get a daily roundup of the top reads in personal finance delivered to your inbox. Subscribe to MarketWatch’s free Personal Finance Daily newsletter. Sign up here.

More from MarketWatch