For more than a decade, I was my brother’s financial protector.
And honestly, more than a few times, I wish I hadn’t been.
Mitchell suffered severely from epilepsy and, despite his efforts to maintain a job, he couldn’t stay employed because his medication didn’t completely control his seizures.
We were three years apart and both young adults when I began managing his money. You can imagine that Mitchell didn’t want his not-so-older sister telling him what to do with his funds. But I had to.
My brother wasn’t good at managing his money.
We fought constantly about my control, but without it, his small Social Security disability checks would vanish before he could buy the things he needed. We battled once because I took his ATM card. He had spent almost a week’s worth of grocery money in fees because he was withdrawing money from machines not owned by his bank.
It took a long time for me to figure out how to help him without making this incredible sweet young man feel like a child. I made a lot of mistakes.
Most of the time I was just winging it. There was no official guardianship order from the court or power-of-attorney document.
Back then, I just stepped in and helped because my aging grandmother Big Mama, who had raised us, said it was my job to manage my brother’s money after I graduated from college. Thankfully my brother realized he needed help and allowed me to be his financial manager.
I’m telling you all this because if you are managing someone else’s money or property, don’t wing it. Get guidance.
I'll help you get started. I’ve selected a series of “Managing Someone Else’s Money” booklets. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau worked closely with the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging to create the free guides, which can be downloaded or ordered in bulk or single copies at www.consumerfinance.gov/managing-someone-elses-money. You can also request copies by calling (855) 411-2372.
Here are the titles:
▪ “Managing Someone Else’s Money: Help for Agents Under a Power of Attorney.”
▪ “Managing Someone Else’s Money: Help for Court-Appointed Guardians of Property and Conservators.”
▪ “Managing Someone Else’s Money: Help for Trustees Under a Revocable Living Trust.”
▪ “Managing Someone Else’s Money: Help for Representative Payees and VA Fiduciaries.” This last one is intended for people named by a government agency to manage someone else’s benefits, such as Social Security or veterans’ assistance.
The series is meant to assist “good-hearted persons” who aren’t specialists in watching over someone’s money, Gail Hillebrand, the CFPB’s associate director for consumer education and engagement said in an interview.
Although state laws vary, the guides can be used no matter where you live. The agency has produced some state-specific ones, and additional tailored guides are forthcoming. All of them carry a disclaimer because they are not intended to provide legal advice or replace the help you may need from an attorney.
The guide for a power of attorney doesn’t tell you how to create the document but rather spells out your responsibilities once a person has given you the legal power to make decisions about his or her money. You should understand that you are being put in a position of trust and that you have certain “fiduciary duties.”
As the CFPB points out, you have four basic obligations: Act only in the person’s best interest. Manage the money carefully and correctly. Keep the person’s money separate from your own. And maintain accurate records.
Crooked fiduciaries won’t heed the following advice from the guides, but the rest of you who are put in this position of trust should: “As a fiduciary, you must be trustworthy, honest and act in good faith. If you do not meet these standards, you could be removed as a fiduciary, sued or have to repay money. It is even possible that the police or sheriff could investigate you and you could go to jail. That’s why it’s always important to remember: It’s not your money!”
Although the guides were produced by the CFPB’s Office of Older Americans, they are useful no matter whom you are a fiduciary for. The better informed you are, the better money manager you'll be.
I'll be hosting a chat about this topic at noon Eastern on Sept. 1 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. My guest will be Naomi Karp, a senior policy analyst in the Office of Older Americans.