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Outside the Box: My brother stole from our elderly parents — how did we miss the signs?

I have written about my parents being victims of financial abuse by one of my brothers. Recently, I returned to Bangkok, which gave me a chance to discuss this situation at length with the entire family, including my other brothers and my uncle.

When the financial abuse of an elderly person is committed by a stranger, the rest of the family often has no chance to see warning signs. But 90% of abusers are family members or trusted individuals. In these cases, there are often warning signs, but the family may not want to acknowledge the problem.

In my brother’s case, my uncle said he’d noticed his free-spending lifestyle. He’d purchased new luxury cars for himself and his wife shortly after gaining control of half my elderly parents’ money through a guardianship. In many ways, however, this financial abuse was part of a pattern that could be seen going back to his youth.

He was the only one out of four children, who’d continued to get substantial support from my parents throughout his life. While the rest of us have been supporting ourselves since we graduated from university, he continued to depend on our parents to make ends meet. It got to the point where he considered their financial assistance to be a normal part of his personal finances.

It’s common for Thai families to have multiple generations living together. What’s uncommon is a son who doesn’t give part of his salary to his parents, or at minimum pay his own expenses, while living with them. My brother not only didn’t pay expenses while living with our parents well into his 40s, but also he lived there with his wife and two children. He relied on my parents to pay most of his family’s living expenses: cars, gas, food, mobile phones and even part of the school tuition for his two daughters.

Six years ago, we were happy when he finally bought a home of his own. But he did so by selling two of my mom’s plots of land and using the proceeds for the down payment. I objected to this, but my mother said the gift would be offset later through my parents’ wills. Since then, she’s backed off that commitment.

Subsequently, my brother borrowed the rest of the money he needed to build his new home from my parents—a loan he never finished paying off. In other words, my parents paid for him to live with them and then paid for him to move out.

My other brothers, uncle and the rest of our family agree that it was partly my parents’ responsibility to stop the support—to say “no” to him. But they were always generous with family, having taken in siblings at times when money was tight and they had nowhere to go. Their generosity had never endangered their savings, however, until my brother started taking.

Even worse, my brother began to surreptitiously take without even asking. As our father was dying in the hospital, my brother—supposedly helping to oversee his expenses—maxed out my father’s credit cards for personal use. It was a perfect storm. My parents’ generosity and kindness, and my brother’s pilfering, now leave my mother at risk of not having enough to support herself in her widowhood.

I confronted my brother when I was in Bangkok and was shocked by his attitude. He admitted no wrongdoing, although he acknowledged our parents didn’t consent to his spending. He claimed that he just meant to borrow the money temporarily.

My other brothers and I failed to see the warning signs that were there all along. We and my uncle agreed that we should have sensed there was something off. Perhaps my brother’s early habit of living off my parents made his later taking seem normal. It created a blind spot for us—even as he went further than we ever thought he would.

I honestly didn’t think this could happen in a family like ours, one that includes two bankers. Now I regret that I wasn’t more insistent with my parents about my brother’s habit of living off them—and that I didn’t confront him sooner. In the end, my abusive brother took advantage of our parents’ generosity. The responsibility lies on his shoulders, as it does on the thief more than the sleeping security guard.

Not everyone who lives at home and receives financial support from their parents is an abuser. But when parental support grows from occasional to constant, creating a sense of dependency and entitlement, the groundwork is laid for grotesque abuse. In my brother’s case, he came to see our parents’ money as his own, to be spent as he wished, especially when he had access to half of it.

Even with the clear evidence we’ve discovered of my brother’s theft, my mother still has trouble understanding. Her mental decline, combined with a motherly denial of the idea that her son stole from her, keeps her from taking action. We, the remaining children, now are doing what we can to minimize the financial impact. But we also have to protect our mother from the full reality of what has happened—a reality that might be too much for her.

This column originally appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.

Jiab Wasserman, M.B.A., RICP, has lived in Thailand, the U.S. and Spain. She spent the bulk of her career with financial services companies, eventually becoming vice president of credit risk management at Bank of America, before retiring in 2018. Her earlier articles are available here.

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