The Prodigal Son Returns – An American Tragedy

Note: Over the past several years I have had several occurrences to see how eldercare and family dynamics intermix during both the caregiving and estate distribution phases. My direct experience has been very positive, with extended families coming together with everyone doing all they can to help and, when all is done, to distribute equitably among people who care for and about each other. In recent conversations with friends and colleagues who have had different experiences, I’ve become aware that the harmony I have experienced is by no means common, and among many families the end phases of a loved one’s life can be overshadowed by intra-family turmoil and individual greed. The following content is fictitious, but is based loosely on the aggregate experiences of several people who have shared their observations with me.

There was once a typical early 1970’s bedroom community family – a father who commuted daily into the city to work at a job he enjoyed, a mother who was always home to meet the school bus and was active in several volunteer activities, and two children – a big brother and a little sister separated by a couple of years. It was a loving family in an idyllic setting on a lake in a small town easily accessible to the city, and family friends and the father’s business colleagues often made use of a standing invitation to stop by on holidays and weekends to enjoy the water. It was, in short, the external picture of American domestic bliss at the time.

Underneath, however, there were cracks starting to grow. The son was not thriving in his social environment. He would try groups such as scouts or sports teams for a few weeks, then give up and try something else without ever establishing a connection, and it was always someone else’s fault. He became a bully at school, but when he tried to intimidate the other kids they often fought back, occasionally grouping up on him after he had tried to pick on someone and dumping him instead into the school dumpster. Desperate, the parents pulled him out of public school and sent him to a local private school where he was soon nearly expelled and only stayed in by being more or less given an individual aide who watched over him and intervened often. During this period he also bullied his sister, often hitting her and any friends she might have over and at one point even breaking her arm and laughing about it. By the time high school came around there was no question of him staying at home any longer, and he was sent to a boarding school on the other side of the country, where the fairly rigid routine tended to keep him in check. Even there he soon got into trouble for trying to forge checks and otherwise breaking the school’s “honor code” but with increased attention from the school staff he began to settle down a bit. He preferred not being at home so in the summers other activities were found for him, and he never really lived at home with his family from that point forward.

In his absence his sister finally was able to develop out of the community stigma of being his little sister, and soon she became actively involved in several community organizations and established a presence as one of the top middle school students in the area. Freed of the stigma of her brother, she excelled in high school and made several strong connections in the community.

After high school they went to different colleges and then into the working world. She maintained close ties with her parents and often used her vacation days to go home and help them out during busy times or if one of them wasn’t feeling well, he only came to visit at holidays if he had no other plans or to meet up with college friends who had settled in the area and use his parents as a hotel for a night. When home, he expected to be treated as the prodigal son, and would become angry and abusive if he wasn’t the center of attention or if everything didn’t go his way. Several times he requested large sums of money from his parents to support business activities he wanted to get into, yet months later the businesses always failed and the money was gone.

A few years later their father was hospitalized with a serious condition, and their mother asked if they could come home and help for a couple of weeks. His sister took an unpaid leave of absence to do so, he booked a last minute vacation to Hawaii for himself and his new wife and said he couldn’t make it. For the next several months their father was not really himself, and instead of paying the bills as he usually did he just let them pile up. Their mother assumed they were being paid as always, and so when she got a call from the power company that their power was about to be cut off she called her daughter to look into it. When she did, she realized none of the bills had been paid. She managed to get them all back in order, and to prevent it from happening again her parents suggested to have their bills go to her as well as authorized her as their medical representative.

After a couple more years of managing the household from away as well as a few more health issues popping up for both parents which resulted in several months of flying back and forth every other weekend to help out with the house and anything else (and during which their son was conspicuously absent despite several requests for help from both the parents and the daughter), the daughter decided it was time for her to move closer. She was able to find a job in the area in her field, and her parents suggested she move back in with them rather than renting a place and they would be happier with her in the house. When the son and his wife dropped by unannounced and found the daughter living there, he was very angry and began to scream at his father that it wasn’t fair for her to be living in the house rent free. The father replied that she was there at their request, and unlike him she had been actively helping out with the house and their issues for the past several years. A few months later, and on the advice of the father’s long term financial adviser, a living trust was drawn up which provided for the long-term care of the parents and ownership of the house was transferred to the daughter, which allowed her to cut back her working hours and spend more time tending to the increasing care needs of her parents.

Soon thereafter, the son was fired from his job, and shortly after that was divorced by his wife. He returned to his parents’ house, and both they and his sister were glad for him to stay there provided he pitched in and helped out. After a few days, however, he showed no signs of willingness to assist and became verbally abusive to everyone in the household, and his parents asked him to find somewhere else to stay and filed a restraining order with the police. He found a new place and seemed to settle down for a bit, but several months later, his father and sister were contacted by an attorney he had retained with a notice that they were being sued, with the son wanting the portion of his parent’s inheritance he felt was due to him to be paid out immediately as well as unlimited access to all members of the family. Mediation was attempted, but when it didn’t go the way the son wanted he got up and walked out. Family friends tried to intervene, but without success.  When the father’s attorney pointed out that there is no fundamental right of an inheritance, particularly while the parents are still alive, and the father pointed out that the gifts that had been made for business start-ups came out to far more than half of what an inheritance would be, and that no such gifts had been provided to the daughter, the son’s attorney changed course. The next notice came that the son was challenging the legitimacy of the trust that had been set up since he had not been invited to be a trustee. When that was shown to be a dead end, another notice, and another notice and …

In short, the current American System has created a situation where the son has nothing to lose by finding an attorney (likely on a % of winnings contract) to keep picking at his parents and sister, but potentially something to gain. The more time is spent on it the more the attorney needs a win to cover his invested effort, so as a team they are locked in siege warfare. To the parents and the daughter, each new round requires yet more resources of time, effort, and money be spent to fight off the increasingly dubious challenges, creating an atmosphere of stress and emotional turmoil not at all conducive to allowing the parents to fully recover from past health issues, prevent future ones, and be in a situation to enjoy the remainder of their lives.

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