My sister stole from our parents
Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.
“Several years ago, one of my sisters stole thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry from our mother, who had Alzheimer’s. When she was confronted with proof, she denied it, deflected, blamed others…and painted herself as the victim! We offered help, counseling, forgiveness, etc. But she has never admitted anything and subsequently cut almost everyone in the family off completely. Did not even look at or speak to most of us at our mother’s funeral. Yet she tells other people that WE cut HER out of our lives. How can we heal this rift or at least manage its impact on my family?”
—Daria S., Norfolk, Va.
Just last week, as I was packing up after a talk, a woman came up to me and shared her own family money woes. A close relative, she said, has been giving her the cold shoulder for years over a perceived financial slight. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard a version of this story. Money can do wonders for a family, obviously; but financial misunderstandings—or worse—can tear us apart from our closest kin.
From a personal finance perspective, theft among friends or family—unless the value of the stolen goods will severely affect your financial stability—is generally a lost cause. Don’t expect to get your belongings back with interest and a handwritten apology. Do expect to be more wary around this person in the future—and in the most extreme cases, you might have to consider breaking off the relationship.
“The complex emotions that surface at the time of a parent’s decline and in the aftermath of death often get detoured into fights about money, and these rifts are not easily healed.”
But the situation described above is more than a crime scene; it’s an emotional minefield. To walk us through it, I got advice from Harriett Lerner, Ph.D., psychologist and bestselling author of The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships and Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts (highly recommended, especially for this situation). Like me, she’d seen situations like this many times before—but as a therapist her perspective was very different.
“In my professional work, I’m struck by how often sibling relationships fall apart around the life-cycle stage of caring for elderly parents,” Lerner said. “The complex emotions that surface at the time of a parent’s decline and in the aftermath of death often get detoured into fights about money, and these rifts are not easily healed.”
Beneath every family money squabble, big or small, there are underlying—sometimes decades-old—emotional wedges. Often, finance is simply the “easier” fight to pick when what needs to be resolved is just too painful to deal with.
Admit that there’s no magic fix
Because of its emotional context, this is not a money dispute that the sisters can resolve over a pedicure or cups of coffee. It might be, instead, time to face an unpleasant reality: “Your challenge is to accept the fact that your sister is unlikely to ever apologize, orient to reality, feel remorse, or admit to her bad behavior,” Lerner said. “When people do shameful things they tend to wrap themselves in a blanket of rationalization and denial, reverse blame, and fail to take responsibility for their words and actions.”
Maybe you’re thinking that there must be some magic words you could utter—some kind of carefully planned intervention or family meeting that will resolve the problem. Lerner doesn’t recommend it. “Don’t try to ‘process’ the issue with your sister, or try to change or convince her,” she said. “It won’t help.”
Kyle Benson, a Seattle relationship coach trained in The Gottman Method, said any attempt at reconciliation would require willingness on both sides—and a whole lot of understanding.
“I’d explore family therapy with the focus to repair the bond,” he said, but only on one condition: “If that’s what both sides want. If she maintains her innocent victim stance, it frees her of repairing and owning up to her part of what occurred.
Work on you
That doesn’t mean it’s time to wash your hands of the situation—and your sister. There’s one person you do need to make peace with: you. “Your job is to avoid getting mired in anger, bitterness, and resentment that will only serve to make you unhappy or ruin an otherwise good day,” said Lerner.
Benson agreed. “Feeling like a victim is completely justifiable. It’s what you do with that feeling that matters,” he said. “If you stew in it, you excuse yourself from repairing the relationship.” Which means that if your sister ever does come around, it will be you who isn’t ready to make amends.
Bring the rest of the family together
What’s more, it’s crucial to avoid spreading the drama through the rest of your family. “The best thing you can do is to be a calm and mature presence,” Lerner said. “Don’t throw fuel on the fire by reacting to your sister’s intensity with more intensity. Don’t blast or blame her to other family members, and especially not to her children, if she has them.”
In fact, try doing the opposite. I suggest taking time for an honest conversation with the siblings you’re still close to. Talk about how you plan to move forward and encourage them to do the same.
Of course, taking the high road is easier said than done, especially when your sister has other ideas.
“When you hear false rumors (‘You cut HER out of YOUR lives’) calmly say that from your perspective, the opposite is true,” Lerner said. “That is, keep it short, and resist rehashing her crime sheet.”
Let’s face it: Theft is a personal finance issue nobody likes to talk about. In this case, what’s been stolen is more valuable than a box of jewelry. “A sister relationship (even a bad one) is a painful thing to lose,” Lerner said. “All people are better than the worst things they have ever done, and perhaps in time your sister will reach for her competence to be a kinder and more functional member. Just don’t count on it.”