Advice & Opinion

The Everyday Diplomat: Mother-in-law’s Medical Condition

Dear Everyday Diplomat,

My elderly widowed mother was rushed to ICU and is now in a coma. She has been the Social Security representative payee for my disabled adult brother. Her bills, his bills, are all piling up and none of us (her other adult children) know what to do. None of us are named on her checking account or my brother’s custodial Social Security account. Where do we start?


Dear Struggling,

I am so sorry about your mother and her medical condition – this is every child’s nightmare.

Take a deep breath. Exhale. Repeat. You are about to participate in multiple bureaucratic marathons. It’s daunting and exhausting but something you can do to ease your mother’s burdens in a meaningful way.

First, try to determine if your mother has thoughtfully provided a power of attorney (POA) for you and/or your siblings. Check her papers. Can you determine if she has consulted with a lawyer about a will? If she has, then it is possible that the same lawyer prepared POA and a living will (medical directive) as well.

If you find one or more POA naming yourself then step one is to go to her bank and present the POA with appropriate identification for both her and you. Instruct the bank to authorize you to sign her checks. Then you can pay her bills using her checking account.

If there is no POA, then you will have to determine what procedure is required in your state to have your mother declared incompetent to manage her affairs and to have you and/or any other siblings declared your mother’s legal guardian. I recommend seeking legal counsel as soon as possible.

For your disabled brother, you must decide who will replace your mother as his representative payee and immediately go to your local Social Security office to make the application to replace him. Your disabled brother should attend as well. If no one is familiar with the rights and responsibilities of a representative payee then again, please seek legal advice first. Note: the POA will not work for a Social Security custodial account – representative payee must be vetted and approved by Social Security.

Elderly Parents: do your kids a favor, go to a lawyer and your bank:

  • Have a current will and medical directive;
  • Put your trustworthy child/children on your checking account;
  • Have a current Power of Attorney
  • Make sure someone knows where to find these valuable papers!

Kindest regards,
The Everyday Diplomat

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