By Rob Goldman, J.D. and Amy Ding, M.D.
Many parents frequently make sacrifices for their children. The focus of this article is not
the typical sacrifices parents make for their children but rather on the situations where adult
children look to their parents, in particular older parents, for financial assistance or try to
dump their emotional baggage on their parents.
Do parents have an obligation to provide financial and emotional support to their adult
children who are experiencing tough times? The short answer is that they do not. Parents
who have raised their children have performed their duty and it is up to the children to take
responsibility for their own lives and the choices and mistakes they make. Of course, there
could be a compelling situation which, based on the specific facts and circumstances, the
answer may be different.
Many parents have a natural feeling of responsibility to help their children in times of need,
and tend to feel guilty if they do not. Decisions to help, or not to help, should not be based
primarily on emotion or pressure.
Your first obligation as a parent, as a person, is to take care of yourself. If you are
financially and/or mentally unable to take care of yourself, you are not in a position to take
care of others. Under no circumstances should you jeopardize your financial security for
anyone else, or your spouse or significant other.
Financial abuse of parents, especially elderly parents, is an increasing problem. Elderly
parents are particularly vulnerable because of the confidential relationship they have with
their children, their “blood.” Parents sometimes will not believe that their children would
take advantage of them. Many of the elderly suffer from some form of dementia and are easily manipulated and deceived. Other parents feel trapped because they are dependent on an adult child and are afraid that standing up to them or denying them will result in physical or mental abuse,loss of needed care services, loss of a place to live, or that they will be completely on their own and isolated from their family and grand-children.
Some seniors have lost their spouse who used to take care of all the family finances and
feel lost. Many a time, an adult child will step in and provide caring, diligent assistance.
Unfortunately, there are many instances where a family member sees this as an
opportunity to enrich himself or herself at the expense of the parent and to deprive siblings
from sharing in any inheritance. Yes, this happens, more frequently than one would think!
If you see red flags, don’t ignore them. Do something right away. Seek professional help
to review your situation and figure out how best to resolve the problem.
The first step to determine whether you are able to help an adult child, assuming you really
do want to help, by performing your own due diligence. Can you really afford to take on
the responsibility of helping your child or anyone else? Review the financial resources you
have now, the resources you will need in the future, factors that may increase and
decrease those resources, whether you rely on others to make ends meet, your health and
how your health needs and the related expenses that will impact your resources. Consider
your own home, work, mental health, physical health, relationship and other needs and stresses.
Second, verify that the child really does need the assistance requested, – that it is a
necessity not just an item on their wish-list. Make sure you get straight answers and the
substantiation you request. Do not allow yourself to be pressured. It is not your problem. –
You are being asked to lend or give your money. You are the boss of yourself!
Third, consider the emotional impact of becoming involved. Stress is arguably the greatest
cause of physical and mental health problems, including heart, digestive, nervous system,
thyroid function, sleep cycles, cancer, poor nutrition, emotional behavior, poor decision making, relationship tension, and so forth. If by taking on the responsibility of helping your adult children, you are going to take on their emotional and financial baggage, create stress in your life and in your relationship with your spouse or significant other, you have to ask yourself whether that makes sense, whether that is the right thing to do by you and by your life partner.
If you really are not in a position to help, do right by yourself and admit that you cannot
help, no matter how much you would like to, and learn how to say “No.” You have no legal
or moral or parental duty to help your child to your own detriment. If you are unable to help,
you are unable to help and that is that.
There is no reason to feel guilt. You can feel sad, you can feel empathetic, you can feel
concerned for your child, but you should not feel guilt. If you allow yourself to feel guilt you
are misleading yourself and doing yourself an injustice. You raised your child and did you
duty as best you could under the circumstances. Even if you feel you could and should
have done better, the past is the past. Yes, that could be a reason for helping when
otherwise you might not, but the first threshold test is whether you are able to help. If
you are not able to help, you have to accept the reality and move on.
If you are unable or unwilling to help, make a firm commitment to stick to your decision no
matter how strongly your children pluck at your heartstrings. Anticipate their
disappointment or anger, and consider a diplomatic way to say “NO.” Explain that you wish
you could help, but after reviewing your personal situation, you cannot. You do not need
to prove to your children that you are unable to help and make it clear this is not a topic for
debate or discussion. Just say, “I’m really sorry, but no, I cannot help you.”
If your child decides to reduce contact with you or ignore you because you did not do what
they asked, sad that you may feel, the decision is their choice, and it tells you how little
concern they have for your needs, your security and your feelings. Let that be a wake-up
call, not a reason to feel guilty. Recognize that such children will not be there for you when
you need them. More likely than not, they will appear primarily to see what’s in it for them.
You should update your estate planning to protect your interests.