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Life With a Substance-Abusing Adult Child - Ann's Story

Dealing with a Substance-Abusing Child - Ann's Story of Abuse and Exploitation

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. 5.9.24


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Attorney RJ Connelly III

"It's difficult to find someone who has not been affected by a loved one's substance abuse problem," said professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Recent studies indicate that addiction issues are increasingly affecting older adults and seniors. However, there is also a pressing issue of seniors with adult children who suffer from drug addiction. Current statistics suggest that one in ten adult children experience addiction problems."


"The question at hand pertains to estate planning and inheritance distribution, particularly in the case of an adult child who is struggling with substance abuse. For parents or other loved ones, the challenge arises in providing for the individual without enabling their drug use. A more concerning scenario is when a substance-abusing adult child takes advantage of an elderly parent for financial gain. This blog will explore this topic in detail and provide examples of successful and unsuccessful approaches to estate planning in such situations."


Ann's Story

Patty, a certified nursing assistant at the Assisted Living facility, closely monitored Ann's well-being and strange behaviors. When she first arrived, Ann was a cheerful and sociable senior who always dressed impeccably. However, after a few weeks, Patty noticed changes in her behavior and health. Ann had lost her husband a few years prior and would seldom talk about her loss, and she rarely mentioned her son Wayne. Despite Patty's efforts to bring up Wayne during their conversations, Ann always avoided it.


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Wayne convinced his mother sign over money

One day, during their usual chat, Ann accidentally revealed that Wayne was in treatment for heroin addiction. She also confided that he had been in prison for burglary and assault. Ann expressed concerns about Wayne's upcoming release from a treatment program and his move to a halfway house. She feared that Wayne wouldn't be able to maintain his sobriety and that his past aggressive behaviors would resurface.


Weeks later, Wayne finished his program and visited his mother at the assisted living facility. His appearance had changed dramatically, with a clean-cut look and new attire. Ann was overjoyed to see the "new" Wayne and hoped that he would stay sober this time.


Wayne visited his mother more frequently as time passed, and Ann became more withdrawn from her usual activities. She started wearing long-sleeved clothes, even as the hot weather arrived, and blamed it on feeling cold. The nurses at the facility became concerned about Ann's health as she was losing weight and was no longer as active as before. They also noticed that she was falling behind on her cell phone bill, and the office had received a call from the bank about her car payments being behind. This was out of the norm as Ann had a large amount of money in the bank, including a trust and other financial resources left by her husband.


A social worker scheduled a meeting with Ann, but the worker went to Ann's apartment when she didn't attend. There, she found Wayne, who was under the influence of a substance. Wayne was verbally aggressive and told the worker to leave since he was there to visit his mother. The worker could see a look of fear on Ann's face. Several neighbors called to report hearing a male yelling from the apartment, and the administrator called the police. Wayne was removed from the premises.


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Wayne was able to manipulate his mother

The social worker returned to Ann's apartment and was visibly disturbed when she noticed the bruises on her arms. After a lengthy conversation, Ann confided in the social worker that her son had been pressuring her for money and had even grabbed her arm and pushed her against the wall. Several meetings later, Ann revealed that her son had coerced her into adding him to her bank account, which he promptly emptied. He had also stolen her jewelry and sold it, maxed out her credit cards, and left her with unpaid bills. Despite all of this, Ann refused to take legal action against her son, citing "his addiction" as the reason for his behavior. She had even discussed cashing in some CDs which she had "to help Wayne".


During a counseling session, a social worker talked with Ann, who felt guilty about her son's actions. Upon further probing, Ann revealed that her husband had been abusive to both her and her son, Wayne, and she had done nothing to stop it. Ann described how she had sat back and watched the abuse because her husband was the sole provider for the family and provided them with everything they needed except for love. She believed that she had "failed as a parent" and was required to care for Wayne, even though he was in his fifties.


Despite attending numerous counseling sessions, Ann persisted in her belief that her son, grappling with drug addiction, was disabled and unable to secure employment or generate income. Consequently, she continued to provide him with financial assistance, to her detriment. Although the social worker endeavored to persuade Ann to encourage her son to take responsibility for his own life and seek the necessary help, she remained obstinate. However, Ann eventually acquiesced and consulted an elder law attorney, who took the required legal action to safeguard her financial resources and well-being. Regrettably, Ann's story is not an isolated one when it comes to adult children grappling with substance use disorders.


Is Addiction a Disability?

In 1996, amendments to the Social Security Act eliminated eligibility for disability benefits based on drug addiction and/or alcoholism. Before this change, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) were provided to individuals whose alcoholism or drug addiction prevented them from working.


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Congress admended the law in 1996

Under the current law, an individual cannot receive disability benefits if drug addiction or alcoholism is a material factor in their disability. However, if the applicant has medical conditions that are not caused or exacerbated by the misuse of substances or if damage has occurred that would not be reversed if they stopped using drugs, they may still be eligible for disability benefits.


While some advocates for substance abusers view this as unfair, there are valid reasons for the change. Before 1996, addicts often exploited the Social Security system by spending their checks on substances within a week or even a weekend, then spending the rest of the month in detox until the next check arrived. This predictable pattern of behavior led to treatment providers becoming "holding areas" until the next check arrived and liquor stores or bar owners using the addicts' checks to ensure payment for their services.


Despite the changes made to the law, some individuals with addictions have found ways to work around the rules. They seek a diagnosis of a mental health disorder that is deemed to be the root cause of their substance abuse disorder rather than the other way around. If substance abuse is viewed as the material contributing factor in the mental health disorder, the individual may not qualify for disability benefits. Those with primary substance use disorders have become adept at manipulating the system to their advantage.


Using a Trust

Adherence to various rules and regulations is necessary when establishing trusts, and it is advisable to seek assistance from an experienced elder law attorney. It is important to note that the regulations associated with trusts may differ from one state to another, and thus, legal experts can help navigate the process seamlessly.


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There are workable trusts that can protect a family

Trusts have become increasingly popular in recent times to manage adult children's addiction disorders, albeit with rigid guidelines. However, it is essential to remember that trusteeship can take an emotional toll on some family members.


Suppose a workable trust has been set up for an adult child with a substance abuse problem. In that case, a crucial decision arises: who should be the trustee - an individual or an institution?


Trustees can be categorized as individual or institutional. A family member or someone familiar with the person typically acts as an individual trustee. An institutional trustee, on the other hand, could be a bank, agency, attorney, or financial advisor. Each trustee type has its advantages and disadvantages, with the choice ultimately depending on several factors. These include the complexity of the trust, the level of personal involvement required, and the degree of impartiality necessary. Careful consideration of all options can ensure that the trust is managed effectively and efficiently.


The Family Member as Trustee - Problematic

Addiction can have profound consequences for families, causing immense strain on the family unit and leading to its eventual breakdown under the weight of stress and anxiety. While the addict is often the focus of attention, the other family members are often overlooked as victims of addiction as well. The relationships between them become strained as the addict exploits their vulnerabilities, leading to internal battles that can test even the strongest bonds. Including money in the equation can exacerbate the situation, inflaming tensions and making them even more volatile.


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Family members as trustees can be a disaster

The emotions that the families of someone with a substance use disorder experience are intense and can last for years or even decades. They understand how addiction can alter a person, but they are equally aware of the constant lies, manipulation, and abuse that an addict can inflict on their loved ones. The pain and emotional damage caused by an addict's behavior are immeasurable, leaving family members feeling helpless and hopeless.


Even acts of love towards them can become enabling behaviors. Families are driven by a desire to help their loved ones, and they may resort to lending money, paying rent or utilities, or taking other actions that enable the addict to continue their destructive lifestyle. However, these well-intentioned actions often stem from guilt about the loved one's addiction and the enabler's sense of responsibility. Unfortunately, these actions frequently exacerbate the situation for everyone involved, perpetuating the cycle of addiction.


As the addicted person's behavior spirals out of control, the strain on family members becomes unbearable. They struggle to cope, lashing out at each other and engaging in the same behaviors as the addict, including manipulation, lying, and even stealing. The cycle of addiction can destroy even the most loving and caring families, leaving them shattered and broken.


"I strongly advise against family members or friends acting as trustees," said Attorney Connelly. "Our firm has developed scores of such trusts for families in these difficult situations over the years. For the well-being of all concerned, I advise that it be administered by an institutional provider. This takes the emotions out of the equation and allows time for the entire family to heal."


A Final Word

It is imperative to recognize that once an individual reaches adulthood, their legal obligations do not fall upon their parents. Despite this, many parents assume an immense social and emotional responsibility for their offspring, even in adulthood. In some instances, parents may yield to the financial demands of their adult children who are facing legal troubles or have succumbed to drug addiction. The expectation is that the funds provided to their children will be employed for constructive purposes to help them recover from their current situation rather than for malicious intentions; however, this is seldom the case. Moreover, some parents often feel ashamed of their children's errors and believe they could have done better in raising them.


"It is a universally acknowledged truth that no parent can be perfect in their upbringing of children; mistakes are inevitable," stated Attorney Connelly. "As children become adults, they have the autonomy to make decisions. While it is understandable to want to safeguard our children, their actions remain beyond our control. They are solely responsible for their choices, such as addiction or choosing sobriety. They must take accountability for their behaviors, whether it be blaming others for their current situation or taking positive steps towards a better life. Adults must take ownership of their decisions, and elderly parents should not bear the burden of their adult children's actions."


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Please note that the information provided in this blog is not intended to and should not be construed as legal, financial, or medical advice. The content, materials, and information presented in this blog are solely for general informational purposes and may not be the most up-to-date information available regarding legal, financial, or medical matters. This blog may also contain links to other third-party websites that are included for the convenience of the reader or user. Please note that Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. does not necessarily recommend or endorse the contents of such third-party sites. If you have any particular legal matters, financial concerns, or medical issues, we strongly advise you to consult your attorney, professional fiduciary advisor, or medical provider.

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