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Family caregivers can have issues if they don't keep good records

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Most family caregivers learn to give aid on the fly. Dad takes a tumble and breaks his arm. Mom can help, but not enough, so we step in. We run errands and pick up what they need. No problem. However, caregiving needs for elders tend to increase, sometimes rapidly. Somewhere along the line, preferably before too much time passes, the family caregiver needs to start saving receipts and keep track of money spent on the elder and any reimbursement received. It may not matter now, but it could be vital to have this information in the future.

As caregiving duties multiply, you find yourself doing more shopping for your parents. Mom has a harder time getting out so she writes you a check when you bring their groceries over. It's all friendly and reasonably fair.

You go on this way for months as caregiving needs grow. Pretty soon you are in full caregiver mode. You talk your folks into hiring some in-home help for a few hours a week. Things move along well, but you're still running the errands and you keep up the financial informality.

Then, your sister visits and decides that the adult children need to take over the parents' checkbook. She browses through the check register, then casually - or not so casually - asks, "How come Mom writes so many checks to you?"

Suddenly what was so obvious to you is not so obvious to others. You and Mom were doing fine. You've always gotten along with your sister. But money can do strange things to families, especially when parent care is involved. You assumed your sister was aware of how much time you spend with caregiving and that she would understand the casual payment way you and your parents keep track of things. After all, you are busy enough without a complicated bookkeeping system. Her comment strikes you as an accusation. She may or may not mean it as such, but this is a warning.

Keep Records and Receipts for Your Protection

You need to keep records. You need to keep receipts. You need to start treating your family caregiving as a small business. The sooner you do this the better. If you'd done this from the beginning, and I repeat, few family caregivers think of this, you'd be able to reach for the receipts and record book and unemotionally respond to your sister's question with hard copy of the facts. Instead, you feel hurt. It's as though you are being accused of theft, when in reality you've been the one to take the financial and time consuming hit of parent care. There are reasons for keeping records other than family.

  • Your parents may need to go on Medicaid one day. Medicaid has a five year time frame called a "look back," where they want to go over all of your parents' financial records to see if they qualify for help. Five years is a long time, and one thing they are looking for is whether or not your parents "gave away" assets. Those checks written to pay you back for your care and your errands could be scrutinized. If you have receipts and records, likely there will be no problem. But if you don't, they could be construed as gifts to you, and this could put back the time when your parents qualify for aid.
  • Your parents could develop dementia and become paranoid. The parent you so lovingly ran errands for and even contributed to financially may suddenly accuse you of stealing money. Stealing from elders happens often enough that authorities are likely to consider you guilty on the spot, and you will have to prove where the money went. While it's not likely authorities will be called in for something so petty as your bookkeeping, you just never know. At the very least, you would like to be able to show your parents the bookwork and gently say, "Mom, this money is because of groceries I bought you and Dad." You'd like to be able to lay out in black and white the reason the money was spent.
  • You may be spending enough on your elder out of your own income to qualify for a tax credit of your own. Much depends on the elders' income, but there is a tax credit available if you supply a certain amount of financial care for the elder. This is work for a CPA, but you get the picture. You could, if you have records, find out that you qualify for tax credits, where if you don't have records, you're not likely going to be able to do so.

When we jump into caregiving out of love, most of us don't consider keep formal records. We are caregiving - not caretaking. But practicality, and being aware of some of the horror stories well-meaning caregiver's lives have become after being accused by siblings, parents or authorities of abusing the elders' finances, should wake you up and soon make you aware that keeping good records of your expenses is just a way of protecting yourself.

Once you've set up a system, keep giving the loving care you've always given, only take time to record spending. You'll be protected. Your new habit won't be that hard to develop and your caregiving can continue in peace.