The Moneyist: I secretly charge $20 per hour for driving my mother to doctors’ appointments and the grocery store

Dear Moneyist,

My parents moved to live near my family and me about 20 years ago. My father managed all of their money and was an excellent saver and provider for my mother, who never worked, balanced a checkbook or had a grasp of money. He told me before he died that he expected me to take on that responsibility and also told me that I should feel free to reimburse myself for taking her to doctor appointments, and the like, although an amount was never mentioned. He passed away three years ago and I willingly help her with many things, and also visit her at least once a week.

My father told me that I should feel free to reimburse myself. For the last two years, I have reimbursed myself gas and $20 per hour when I take her to a doctor’s appointment or go shopping for her.

Several years ago, when I decided that perhaps that my time for “duties” rather than social visits could be reimbursed both for my time and gas and mentioned this to my mother, she got very angry and said absolutely not. She said, if I wanted, I could give her that amount and she would deduct it from a birthday gift. I dropped the subject with her and have never brought it up again.

I did call their trust lawyer to ask, in general terms, if this was done and he said that absolutely it was common — for those parents who could afford it of course — and he actually mentioned an hourly rate of $40. So, for the last two years, I have reimbursed myself gas and $20 per hour when I take her to a doctor’s appointment or go shopping for her. I have not told her. Sometimes, I feel guilty, but most of the time I feel it’s okay since Dad understood and supported that. Thoughts?

Wendy

Dear Wendy,

Thanks for your letter. I understand that you are trying to do the right thing by caring for your mother. But you are driving to the doctor on dangerous ground.

There are two possible scenarios here. The first — and murkiest — appears to apply to you. Even if you have power of attorney over your mother’s affairs, giving you access to her bank account, you are not legally or ethically entitled to do that. You are acting for the benefit of the principal — your mother — and she has expressly forbidden you from charging for doctors’ visits. As long as your mother is of sound mind and body, it’s her call — even if she is lacking in financial expertise.

You called a trust lawyer and he said it was OK and this was typical. It would be OK if your father had actually set up a trust before he died. He didn’t.

You called a trust lawyer and he said it was OK and this was typical. It would be OK if your father had actually set up a trust before he died. He didn’t. It would be OK if your mother said, “Sure, reimburse yourself.” She didn’t. If you start down this road, your mother may want you to reimburse her for all of the things she did for you after you reached the age of 18. And, while you were a minor, all of the things she bought for you above and beyond providing you food, clothing, housing and an education.

Another problem with taking the money: You could run into problems if your mother (or anyone else) finds out. Other siblings or family members who are not engaged in the day-to-day care of your mother could sue you if they found out, says Terry Siman, managing director at United Capital, a national wealth counseling firm in Philadelphia. “The lack of transparency has created the guilty feeling and exposed the caretaker for trying to do the right thing,” he says.

Your father didn’t have the legal or moral right to force you to take care of your mother and, similarly, he cannot posthumously give you the legal or moral right to dip into your mother’s savings. This should be a cautionary tale for elderly people with children everywhere. Whether you’re taking a $4 hourly rate or $40, you’re doing it on the down-low, and it’s both ethically and legally problematic. Whatever you do, it needs to be 100% transparent.

Your father didn’t have the right to force you to drive your mother to appointments. He can’t posthumously give you the right to dip into her savings.

The second scenario, which does not appear to apply here, would be different. Here’s the legal opinion: “If the assets are in a trust and the terms provide that someone, including a family member, can be compensated for such services without the consent of the trust beneficiary, then such payments would be permissible if they are reasonable,” says Shirley B. Whitenack, a partner with Schenck, Price, Smith & King in Florham Park, N.J. and president-elect of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Read: My father excluded my siblings from his will

The bottom line: “Mentally competent individuals, regardless of their financial acumen, have the right to decide whether they want to pay their children to perform certain services and the child has the right to decide whether to provide those services if they are not receiving compensation,” Whitenack says. That does not mean you are a bad daughter, it means you love your mother and are doing your best. It also means, however, that you should give the money back.

Your letter reminds me of Harlan Perry Howard’s song “No Charge,” which was about a young son charging his mother for chores. This is the gist: “For mowin’ the yard — five dollars/And for makin’ my own bed this week — one dollar/And for goin’ to the store — fifty cents…” His mother replies, “For the nine months I carried you/Growin’ inside me — no charge/For the nights I sat up with you/Doctored you, prayed for you — no charge.” It ends: “The cost of real love is — no charge.”

Yes, it’s a schmaltzy song, but the message is not. As long as your mother forbids any reimbursement, the cost of real love is $20 less than your current hourly rate.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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(This story was republished.)

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