On a number of occasions, I've given advice about the need to help elderly relatives manage their money. I thought I had learned from experience after helping my grandmother.
But honestly, Big Mama didn't have much to manage. She had paid off her home before retiring, she didn't have any debt, and her small savings were kept in a standard savings account.
Nonetheless, that experience made me think I could easily manage an aging relative's finances.
I was sadly mistaken.
Recently, my cousin and I inherited the care of Big Mama's sister. In the span of just nine months, the poor dear lost her husband and only child.
My great-aunt has a lot more money to manage than my grandmother ever did.
"We always think that more money is going to solve everything, but it brings with it its own share of complexity and potential hazards," said Elinor Ginzler, manager for independent living and long-term care for AARP.
Man, is she right.
For example, I think I'm going to have to file a complaint with securities regulators against the Pennsylvania bank that I believe inappropriately invested my great-aunt's money.
When I got involved with helping my aunt, the first thing I tried to do was figure out where all her money was. In the move to Maryland after her son died, my aunt misplaced her financial statements. So I had her call the bank to get duplicates.
Should have been an easy task, right?
Well, the person handling her money kept encouraging her to keep quiet about how much she had in the bank and ignored her requests to send statements -- to me or even to her. He even said, according to my aunt, "Nobody needs to know what you have but you and me."
Okay, I understand. A good financial adviser would want to make sure that no one -- including a possibly no-good relative -- is taking advantage of his or her client.
"It's reasonable that they didn't want her to become a victim of financial exploitation," Ginzler said. "There are occasions where family members have taken advantage of their elderly relative."
True. However, once my aunt assured the bank personnel she was retaining all control over her money and was just enlisting the help of a trusted relative, the pleas to keep her finances secret should have ended.
"That is a bad sign," said Ginzler. "That should have sent up a warning bell."
My aunt thought her money was safely tucked away in a savings or money-market account. That's what she wanted.
It turns out that the investing arm of the bank had put half of my aunt's money -- and I'm not talking chump change here -- in stocks. My aunt is 81 and in poor health. Don't get me wrong: She's very competent, but there is no way on God's green earth my aunt knew she had signed a document that gave the bank authority to rule over her money.
She certainly didn't know, nor would she have approved, of an investment strategy that meant half her money would be in stocks.
This is a woman who thinks a checking account is risky.
My aunt is distraught.
"Is my money all gone?" she asks just about every time I talk to her.
There's a Chinese proverb that says: "One must be a student before one can be a teacher." Maybe my experience with my aunt can serve as a lesson for you. For example:
* Push as hard as you can to get your elderly parents or other relatives to open up about their finances. "Older persons should have all control over the financial aspects of their life as long as they have the capacity," Ginzler said. "And one of the ways to ensure that they keep control is to have very open discussions with very trusted family members and friends."
* Don't make any financial decisions right after a personal loss. That's when you are the most vulnerable. In my aunt's case, her entire close-knit support system was gone. It's natural that she turned to her bank for help. But clearly the bank either didn't know her wishes, or it ignored them.
* Try to establish a support system that extends beyond one person. After my aunt's husband died, she turned to her son, a very capable and loving man who was helping her. But he had serious health problems. "You don't want your finances to be decided on by a committee of 12. But you have to think long-term and to whom responsibilities can be passed on to if circumstances change," Ginzler said. In other words, have a backup plan.
The moral of this story isn't that my aunt may have been taken advantage of. It's that the elderly have to talk with relatives about their finances. And if you even think that you may need to help an elderly relative, don't be shy about having the money talk -- and soon.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and questions are welcome, but please note that they may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.