Editorial Policy

What to do when adult child abuses a parent’s credit

Erica Sandberg

October 13, 2015

QHi Erica,

I am so upset about what my dad has been doing. He has let his stepson Jake, who is 19, use his credit card. Jake is a loser. He doesn’t live at home. I don’t know what he is doing with the money, but my dad is forgetful and not made of money.  I know the bill is way, way more than he can pay back. Jake and I do not talk — we are not friends at all (we’re barely family, as we did not grow up together) — but he is ripping my dad off and destroying his credit. No one is listening to me. Should I call the cops? — Maddison

ADear Maddison,

This is a tough one. The answer depends on your father’s consent and mental capacity.

If your dad gave (and continues to give) Jake permission to use his credit card, the transactions are legitimate. The credit issuer can and will expect repayment from the account owner, despite who benefited from the charges. In this circumstance, there’s not much anyone can do to avoid the bill, except perhaps for your father to demand and extract payment from his stepson, which doesn’t sound likely, at least from your description of Jake.Ask Erica

On the other hand, if Jake used the card without your father’s permission, he committed fraud, a form of identity theft. In that case, your dad should report the crime to the police. Once done, he can contact the credit card company and dispute that portion of the bill. Consumer law is clear: An account owner is not responsible for unauthorized charges, be they from a stranger or family member. Your dad would also be wise to notify the credit reporting agencies to add a fraud alert to his file or freeze his credit altogether. This way no new accounts can be opened or credit limits increased without the lender verifying his identity.

As long as your father is considered mentally sound, it will be up to him to take these actions, though you can certainly help with encouragement and assist him with the process. I understand that as his daughter, you feel compelled to protect him, but he may be making a conscious choice. Not a choice you agree with, obviously, but as an adult he has the right to do what he pleases with his money and credit cards.

If you suspect coercion, however, this is another matter. According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, a senior citizen may be a victim of financial abuse if the perpetrator is using “deception, trickery, false pretense, or dishonest acts or statements for financial gain.”

Your dad’s forgetfulness might be a factor, so instead of calling the police to report potential identity theft, contact your local adult protective services organization to report suspected elder financial abuse.

Cheryl Conley, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association, Northwest Ohio chapter, strongly recommends starting with the local Alzheimer’s Association.

“These organizations are charged with investigating and dealing with any suspicions of abuse, neglect, exploitation and even self-neglect,” says Conley. If you express your worries to the Alzheimer’s Association, a representative will investigate. If you want to go a step further, she suggests reporting the matter to your district attorney or county prosecutor’s office.

In the event that your dad gave Jake permission to use his credit card, but was not of sound mind or consented under pressure, he should not be held accountable for the credit card balance incurred by Jake.

As a daughter, you have a right and responsibility to sit down with dad and voice your concerns. You may suggest that he check his credit reports, too. Gather the rest of the troops to see if most or all other relatives are on the same page. Even Jake’s mother may be alarmed to know what her son is doing and might be willing to intervene.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.

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