Stalemate: Disagreements about Care

When you and your siblings can't agree on a loved one's care, what happens? Learn how one Life Care Planning Law Firm helps feuding families reach consensus.

Whenever two or more adult children are caring for an elderly parent, conflict isn’t just probable, it’s inevitable. Just ask Carol Applegate, attorney and founder of Applegate Elder Law, a Life Care Planning Law Firm on the outskirts of Indianapolis. “If you want to start a war between your children, it’s actually quite easy,” said Carol, who spent two decades as a registered nurse before launching her legal career and starting her elder law practice eleven years ago. “Don’t make your wishes known. Just assume everyone will know what you want.”

Decision-making power is at the root of many disputes. Adult children may disagree about what kind of care parents should receive. “I’ve seen many cases where one child wants everything done to keep mom alive and another sibling refuses because she believes that’s not what mom would have wanted,” noted Carol. “In a battle of wills, the parent’s wishes often aren't considered.”

Many older adults unwittingly set the stage for sibling conflict by making innocent mistakes during the estate planning process. Appointing more than one adult child as Power of Attorney is a common misstep.

Carol has seen scenarios like these all too often. “one client appointed two of her children as Power of Attorney Agents” because she didn't want to hurt the feelings of either child,” Carol said. “The client didn't realize how much discord that single decision would create.”

Both children had independent authority to make decisions about their mother and every decision son made was quickly undone by daughter. “One thought mom should be in a memory care unit, so she was moved into the memory unit, and then the sibling moved her out” recalled Carol. “One thought mom needed a phone and had one installed. The other one had the phone removed.”

How are these sticky issues resolved? That’s where the conflict resolution experience of the attorneys and elder care coordinators at a Life Care Planning Law Firm can be so valuable. “I sat the two sisters down and said, ‘This isn't working,’” Carol remembered. Her skillful facilitation finally led to an agreement. “One of the siblings stepped down and all family members agreed to abide by detailed family rules that spelled everything out.” 

What can you do to minimize the chance of conflict or mitigate disputes if they’re already happening? Carol offers these suggestions:

1. Be specific. If you’re an older adult, the best way to prevent your kids from going to war is to make sure that your documents reflect exactly what you want.

2. Talk about it. As important as Powers of Attorney, Advance Directives, and other estate planning documents can be, they can’t cover every possible scenario. Conversations with your adult children can help clarify your preferences.

3. Set boundaries. Establish basic rules on how certain issues will be handled. For instance, if family members are buying gifts on behalf of Mom, everyone knows who’s responsible for the purchases and how much money they’re permitted to spend.

4. Be objective. When discussing your elderly loved one’s care, set aside emotions. Stick to the facts. “Approach discussions like you would a business deal or buying a car,” Carol advised.
For Carol, sibling conflicts are relics of the past. “Families aren’t coming in my office to solve the problems of today, they’re hashing out decades-old conflicts,” she added. “It can be a challenge to facilitate warring siblings to consensus, but it is very rewarding when you get there.”