Managing the Checkbook for a Parent

Caregiving distance

By Pamela D. Wilson, CSA, MS, BS/BA, CG

My mother, Rose, managed everything in our home including paying the bills.  After she passed away I discovered that she never knew how to balance a checkbook.  In looking through the check register, she simply transferred or deposited more money when the balance became low.  Born in 1926, mom attended high school but did not graduate due to family responsibilities of having to care for her younger brothers and sister.

Today I spent three hours with a client, Judith.  I met her about a month earlier when her grandson was in town “thinking” that she might need help with the volume of mail she received or with balancing her checkbook as she was receiving bounced check fees from the bank.  After one hour of going through stacks of mail on her kitchen table, mainly charitable and sweepstakes solicitations, I realized she had a soft heart and fell prey to heart-wrenching pleas for financial assistance.  She truly believed that Madame Starlight, a psychic, and the Amazing Kreskin from Las Vegas were going to change her life for the better.  She told me she owned unclaimed land in Canada for which she paid $29.95 monthly.

Managing the Checkbook for a ParentIn going through her bank statement, I experienced a moment of déjà vu.  She admitted she did not know how to keep a check register or balance her checkbook.  It was my mother all over again.  The difference, however, was that Judith did not keep a running balance.  I asked her the amount of checks she thought she wrote to charities in the past week.  Her response was “about $400”.

Thank heavens for carbon check copies.  I started a register for her by recording information from the checks she had written.  As far as I could tell, in the past week, Judith had written 50-60 checks to charities, some duplicates totaling in excess of $2,100!

Her monthly income, mainly from a reverse mortgage was $1400.  With her permission I immediately called her bank and asked the bank to place stop payments on a large number of checks.  The bank accountant, realizing that she had previous problems with overdrawn checks, was very responsive.  She suggested closing the account, which we did, to stop the majority of checks from clearing.  This action probably saved Judith about $1400.  She was relieved and told me she thought something like this would happen some day.

The lesson is that we never quite know what we don’t know.  I had no idea my mother did not know how to balance her checkbook.  Fortunately she and my father had no financial problems.

Judith’s brothers, grandsons etc. had no idea how financially vulnerable she was.  Judith has a compulsion to write checks to those in need.  The distressing point is that Judith herself is an older adult in need of taking care of herself.  Her response to past overspending was simply to increase the amount of money she receives from her reverse mortgage.

We as daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, granddaughters or grandsons can support the financial well being of those we know simply by asking how the monthly accounting is going.  Sure, some family members might not want to divulge their finances to other family members.  Others might welcome an offer to “balance a checkbook” because their eyes just aren’t what they used to be or because their hands can’t record small print in a check register.

Many, like Judith, do not know how to use a calculator or are unable to perform mathematical calculations. A small offer of help might save a family member or friend from financial difficulties or abuse.  You would be surprised how an offer of this type can relieve the worries of someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know.

© 2012, 2013 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved

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