Avoid Sibling Warfare: Get a Caregiver Contract

A true story By Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, RN, BSN, JD

Marie had spent a lot of time tirelessly caring for her mother during her last illness, cancer. Her sister, Janet, did not have the same skills, and showed up only when Mom was looking better and had been cared for to make her presentable. This went on for two years. Marie, the primary caregiver, watched and listened as her mother got angrier and angrier with Janet.

Janet made little effort to help Mom, and the work of taking care of her was far from equal. Mom decided to give Marie $20,000. She was mentally clear. She wrote it down. A little later, Marie had to finally take Mom into her own home and care for her night and day for the last two months of her life. She did a great job, and the family all appreciated her work. Except Janet.

After Mom died, there wasn't much of an estate. Some furniture, jewelry, and the $20,000 were about it. Marie, the caregiver, had the cash and a bracelet. Janet took all the other jewelry. A few pieces of junky furniture were all that was left. Janet decided that Marie had "abused" their mom financially. She went to a lawyer, told her story, and no one knows what she actually said that was true and what was untrue.

Next thing Marie knows is that she's getting a threatening letter from a lawyer accusing her of financial elder abuse. She hires her own lawyer. She pays out and pays out for the lawyer to meet with her, read the threatening letters from the other lawyer, and set up a meeting to let Janet take what she wanted from the remaining junky furniture. Meanwhile, the dispute remains and nothing is resolved after a year except who got the table. Threats of financial elder abuse continue.

What is saddest about this situation is that it could have been prevented. We encourage all family caregivers who are putting in the work to care for an aging parent to get a "caregiver contract" drawn up and signed by the parent while everyone is sure the parent is still mentally competent. It doesn't have to be complicated. It should spell out what the caregiver gets in return for doing the caregiving and what the caregiving entails.

We suggest that everyone consider which family members may be troublesome later if a parent needs one adult child to provide direct caregiving. It makes a lot of sense to be proactive. If you are already in conflict, a professional mediator who specializes in elder mediation can be invaluable in helping families make agreements and keep conflicts to a minimum.

If you or a sibling is going to be a primary caregiver for a parent, suggest seeing an elder law attorney to draw up a caregiver contract. It can save you hours of aggravation later and, possibly, prevent legal action by a dissatisfied sibling.

If your family is already engaged in a sibling fight, whether your aging parent is living or not, consider elder mediation. It's a way to explore all possibilities for resolving your dispute, and it's far less expensive in the long run than any lawsuit or legal representation can ever be.