The Moneyist: ‘All kinds of stories and explanations are popping up’: My brother moved in with our mother after our father died in 2015, and transferred family property into his name

United States
Dear Quentin,

My father passed away in 2015, and his estate was transferred to my mother. Before his passing, he was clear that things were to be divided equally among his children, only once he and my mother were gone. Since that time, one of the four siblings moved in with our mother, and he has since taken over her finances. 

Over the course of the last seven years, he has managed to transfer the deed of our childhood home/land into their name, and is now claiming that our mom has given it solely to them. They no longer live in it and the property has gone into disrepair at this point. So now they are planning to sell it. 

All kinds of stories and explanations are popping up, claiming that our dad promised this and that to them and that we already received what we were supposed to in 2015. (I received a washer/dryer that my mom purchased for me with funds from my dad’s inheritance.) I am not sure how to stop this from happening.

Is there anything or any place for me to confirm this information, in order to avoid the other three of us losing our property that was supposed to belong to all of us? No one is being up-front, honest or reasonable and there are too many shady responses/underhanded actions that seem to be taking place.

I just need to be steered in the right direction.

Betrayed Brother

Dear Betrayed,

There’s a gray line between the skulduggery of an opportunistic child and coercive control. The latter typically involves isolating the elderly family relative, controlling their finances — including transferring assets — controlling their time and gaslighting them (“Your other children don’t have your best interests at heart. They’re only after your money!”). The villain posing as the hero.

Neil Carbone, partner, trusts and estates, Farrell Fritz, says this kind of situation is all too common. “Unfortunately, this is a fact pattern that comes up with increasing frequency, that is, one of several siblings first becomes a parent’s primary caregiver and then also becomes the primary beneficiary of that parent’s largesse, either during the parent’s life or on death.” 

It sometimes happens with a slightly different twist, however. “A common variation arises within blended families, where a longstanding plan to leave all property on the death of the surviving spouse equally among the children of both marriages gets set aside by the surviving spouse, who chooses to benefit only his or her own children,” Carbone adds.

Undue influence, duress and lack of capacity

The National Center on Elder Abuse, a government agency affiliated with the U.S. Administration on Aging, and the nonprofit National Adult Protective Services Association, have resources and can provide help with the steps you can take to report alleged abuse. Contact your mother’s primary physician. There will also be resources out there to help in your own community, too.

Elder abuse impacts an estimated five million Americans every year, according to the National Council on Aging, and multiple agencies say the number of cases is both increasing and underreported. It may be that your mother lacks capacity to make these decisions about her estate and/or is under some kind of undue influence, or duress.

“Undue influence is a psychological process that may be used against an older person as a means of committing two forms of elder abuse: financial exploitation or sexual abuse. Undue influence is also a legal concept,” says the National Center on Law & Elder Rights. “Case law and statutes recognize that undue influence can undermine an individual’s self-determination.”

Legal options

“Civil lawsuits may result in reversal of decisions made by the individual subjected to the influence,” the organization adds. “Legal and aging network services professionals can make a significant difference to clients who are vulnerable to or who may be experiencing undue influence by recognizing it, mitigating it, and remedying it.”

From a legal view, assuming there is no elder abuse and/or it’s not possible to prove, your mother is entitled to dispose of her assets however she wishes. “Louisiana is the only state in the United States that has a version of ‘forced heirship’ for children and even there it is limited to children who are under the age of 24 or are permanently incapacitated,” Carbone adds.

In the meantime, you need to engage. Talk to your mother about the lifetime transfer of the house. “If his sibling has ‘taken over’ their mother’s finances because she cannot handle her own affairs, it may be that she lacked the requisite capacity at the time of the purported gift or that their mother acted in response to undue influence or duress,” Carbone says.

Of course, we have no way of knowing for sure what is at the heart of your sibling’s moves over the last seven years, but changing the title deeds on a property and allowing a property to fall into disrepair so it can be sold is one clear way of ensuring that your sibling liquidates the assets in order to put them beyond the reach of the rest of the family, should there be a lawsuit.

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