Are You Responsible for Your Elderly Parent’s Debt?

elderly parent debtLet’s say that your mother has granted you power of attorney over her finances, and she has recently become unable to manage her own affairs due to dementia. Upon looking into her accounts, you discover that she has several thousand dollars worth of debt. Can the creditors come after you personally for this money?

No, they cannot. This holds true even if you have power of attorney. The only way you can be responsible for your parent’s debt is if you were also a co-signer on the loan. But, those of us who feel duty-bound to do the right thing  may want to make sure that the bill gets paid anyway. Here are some things to consider before you proceed.

What type of debt does your loved one have? Depending on who the creditor is and the conditions of the loan, the rules for paying back the debt or your sense of obligation might be different. A bank loan is going to be relatively impersonal. The bank will be business-like if there’s a problem with the account, and if everything’s in order will probably not hassle you to repay the whole loan quickly. However, if your mother owes money to a contractor who also happens to be a family friend, and he needs the money, the debt will be much harder to ignore.

Is there a way to contest or renegotiate the debt? For example, was your mother taken advantage of by an unethical salesperson? Did she put a doctor’s bill on a credit card rather than working out a payment plan directly with the office? Can items be returned or recurring services canceled?

Explore different ways of addressing the problem. It’s always worth calling the creditors to see if more favorable arrangements can be negotiated, and the Consumer Credit Counseling Service can help you with working things out fairly. Also, examine your parent’s finances carefully to determine if a source of funding is available. For example, they may qualify for a reverse mortgage that can help you get the debt taken care of quickly. And if your parent has passed away, the matter is as simple as using whatever funds remain in the estate to pay what you can, and then notifiying whoever has not been paid that there are no more assets.

If there’s no money available to pay the creditor and your parent is still alive, you can simply try asking them to forgive the debt (though they may not buy that there are no assets unless your parent is on Medicaid). Your parent can also declare bankruptcy. You’ll of course want to speak with a lawyer before considering this step.

Few of us are comfortable leaving debts unpaid, but if you follow the steps above you will have done your due diligence to get creditors what they are owed.