The Moneyist: My sister put our mother in a nursing home, where she died of COVID-19. Should I take legal action against her or the nursing home?

United States

Dear Moneyist,

My sisters and I disagree on most things, but never could I have imagined how our relationship would end.

My parents put me down as the trustee and power of attorney for both their health care and finances in 1985, again in 2002 when they created a trust, and once again in 2014 when they updated the trust, and their various codicils since then.

I am the oldest child, and I have also been the one responsible for them. I helped them with moving, I cleaned their house, and I took off work and cared for them when they were ill. My sisters were what I call “armchair” daughters. They yelled and screamed their opinions from their La-Z-Boys, but they never actually helped on any level.

After some difficult memory issues with my mom, she and I agreed to move her into assisted living in 2017. Mom signed herself in and made her large one-bedroom apartment into a happy home. She played cards with new friends, gossiped with each other, and they called each other from their rooms.

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‘Mom was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s’

In 2019, Mom was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As her symptoms grew worse in the middle of last year, she became unhappy. Her friends didn’t want to play cards as much, as she couldn’t remember the rules, which made her sad. Some of her friends also passed away. She couldn’t drive anymore or visit her sisters-in-law or brothers-in-law due to COVID-19.

Mom asked to live with me, and I agreed. By this time, I was able to retire with sufficient income, and we happily started packing. One sister hated the idea of Mom living with me. While most families would kill for this home-care option, and a sibling willing to do it, my sister railed against it.

This sister is the “her way or the highway” type of person, and she basically hates me. This was an issue growing up too. She displayed anger and jealousy, way beyond normal sibling rivalry, but Dad and Mom protected me. My parents even sent me to a boarding school for high school at my request, to get away from her. Even my mom was scared of her.

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‘My sister had Mom taken away from me’

This sister decided to do things her way to get her result. Mom fell and had a bruise on her leg, so without my knowledge or consent, my sister used that against me and had Mom sign a new health-care power of attorney, putting her in charge.

My sister had Mom taken away from me and thrown into a nursing home. I immediately hired an attorney and filed for guardianship. While we waited for the courts, I had a Zoom visit with Mom as she sobbed to get her out of there. Mom caught COVID and died days later.

‘My sister finally agreed with our attorneys to allow mom to live in my home, but this was only after she had been told mom tested positive for COVID.’

My sister finally agreed with our attorneys to allow Mom to live in my home, after wasting everyone’s time and money, but this was only after she had been told Mom tested positive for COVID.

I am so heartbroken and guilt-ridden that I couldn’t do anything, and I am angry that the courts were slow to act. My mom died alone, thinking we had forgotten her.

How did my sister get this far? During the guardianship process, we discovered that the hospital would only admit Mom for observation, but the administrative people at the assisted living facility said my sister threatened them if they didn’t go along with the new health-care power of attorney.

The bank tellers who signed as witnesses on the new health-care power of attorney submitted letters to the courts pulling back their signed statements.

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‘She lied about my mom’s condition’

We also submitted requests for health records, and found out that my sister had lied about Mom’s condition. My sister also took all of Mom’s belongings out of her assisted-living home, including jewelry, TV and furniture, even though I am in charge of property for the trust.

I am now executor of the small remaining trust, which is worth about $ 30,000 to $ 40,000. I have hired an attorney to help me administer it, but I have a few questions outside of her responsibilities. Because my sister threw Mom into the nursing home without researching the facility, I also consider that negligent.

This facility already had several COVID deaths in early spring, and had terrible scores with the state throughout the year. What’s more, a majority of the facility’s employees were fired for alleged elder abuse. Mom’s best interests were never protected, and her request to live with me was denied. Clearly my sister’s interest was only controlling our mom and keeping her away from me.

Mom wrote me a check in 2016 for $ 48,000 out of money from the sale of their house (Dad had passed away by then). This check was made out to me alone, and it came out of Mom’s personal account rather than the trust account.

Even though Mom gave it to me, I used this money to pay for her assisted-living expenses. I also deposited money into her checking account over the years to cover her assisted-living costs. None of my sisters helped out with costs.

There is $ 20,000 left of this money, and it remains outside the trust. I also spent $ 18,000 on guardianship and attorney costs trying to get Mom released from the nursing home. My family thinks I am required to place this $ 20,000 back into the family trust, for their benefit.

What do you think?


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Dear Distraught,

Thank you for sharing your story. It must have taken a lot for you to write it down.

What do you do now? You could use the evidence you have gathered to launch a case against your sister for elder and/or financial abuse, given the alleged subterfuge she engaged in to appoint herself as power of attorney and have your mother put in a nursing home, but that would likely be a lengthy and expensive process. A satisfying result against your sister or a suitable penalty is far from guaranteed. You have been through a lot, but this will not undo what has happened.

You may want to discuss with your family and/or your lawyer taking action against the nursing home where your mother stayed, or at the very least report the home to state authorities. What you described does not sound dissimilar from this case in Pennsylvania filed by five current residents and 10 families of residents who died, alleging the home was understaffed, forcing the staff to “cut corners while struggling to care for hundreds of residents during the pandemic.”

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Separately, assuming that your mother was not diagnosed with dementia and was of sound mind in 2016, I see absolutely no reason why you should not keep the $ 20,000. You did your fair share of the work and more. You deposited money into her account to help your mother out with expenses, and spent years taking care of her. Even if she gave this money to you as a gift to say thank you, it still belongs to you. You are under no legal, ethical or moral obligation to deposit it in a trust.

With that said, I do hope you manage to do something nice with the $ 20,000, perhaps as a way to remember your mother and the time you shared together. You could take a post-vaccination, post-COVID vacation somewhere that your mother dreamed of going, or even take classes in a subject that you have always wanted to learn more about. Using the money in a way that serves to elevate your spirit and improve your quality of life could mark the beginning of a healing journey.

And your sister? Ask yourself how much restitution or retribution will satisfy you, and if it would satisfy you at all.We all have a limited amount of time left on this earth, and how we choose to spend it is the most important decision we make every moment of every day. What we choose to dwell on while we roam the corridors of our mind should not take lightly. There’s no point in flying to Paris in 2022, for example, if you are still ruminating about your sister’s misdeeds.

Ultimately, this is your time and your money to use wisely. Your mother would want that for you.

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Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.