The Moneyist: I cared for my mother with Alzheimer’s — can I take the $70,000 in her bank account and not tell my unhelpful, absent brother?

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Dear Moneyist,

My mother recently passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. She was in a group home and I had durable power of attorney over her finances and medical care for the past 15 years — well before she developed her dementia.

My name was also on her bank account, as I would pay all of her expenses. Her estate was liquidated, and transferred to a checking and savings account to pay for her last years of care and rent. I am the joint owner of that bank account, which has approximately $70,000 in cash.

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Am I obligated to share this with my only other sibling? My brother had absolutely nothing to do with caring for her. He would visit occasionally and never offered to even take her home from a hospital stay or to a follow-up appointment.

Tom from Michigan

Dear Tom,

If you were a joint owner on the bank account, the account does not need to go through probate and you inherit the $70,000. There is a small chance that, if you were not listed on the account with “right of survivorship,” it could be argued in court that your mother merely intended for you to have access to the account so you could take care of her, and distribute the money equally after she passed away.

Given that your brother was very hands-off, that seems unlikely to happen. Of course, people can suddenly surprise you and become very hands-on when there is a sizable inheritance at stake. If your mother made a will leaving all of her accounts and property to both her children, it could get sticky. Assuming there is no last will and testament to that effect, the money is yours.

Also see: As a baby boomer, I didn’t grow up with this culture of entitlement — must I really leave my estate to my children or spouse?

Did your mother make her wishes clear to you? I understand that you may have resentment toward your brother for leaving all of the heavy lifting to you in your mother’s final years, but it’s wonderful that you were there for your mother, and had her affairs in order. There are approximately 43.5 million unpaid care givers in the U.S.

It appears that you will inherit this money by default — as you don’t say that your mother requested this — because you were there to care for your mother and not because she specifically said she wanted you to have it. Notwithstanding the caveats outlined above, the money is yours. It worked out financially for you.

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If you do end up with this money, I hope you use the money to take some time for yourself after losing your mother. Alzheimer’s disease often takes a toll on the care giver, as well as the patient. You may not be aware of the exhaustion and even turmoil that you may be experiencing after such an ordeal: Losing your mother to this terrible disease and resentment against your brother.

Your brother’s absence from your mother’s life does not automatically entitle you to this money. There are clear lines between what’s legal, ethical and what feels right to you. Helping yourself to certain parts of a relative’s estate as payback for a perceived wrong is a slippery slope. Declare this account to the estate lawyer and make sure that everything is above board before you move ahead.

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