Can I stop my aging parents from suing each other into oblivion?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 9, 2008

Divorced, they’ve been squabbling in courts for over a decade.


Dear Cary,

I write this letter to you with the hope of gaining some clarity in a situation that it appears I cannot remove myself from.
My parents have been divorced for more than a decade now, but unfortunately neither of them got the memo that divorce means moving on with their lives. They still wrangle each other in court to this day. The reasons range from money to psychological damage caused by the other. You name it, and one has probably made a court matter of it. The two of them don’t speak, and I am the proxy by default.

Needless to say, this has deeply affected me for a while. After more than a decade of hearing the victim complex both my mother and father carry, it is not difficult to realize there is no rationalizing with either of them. I have not had a close relationship with either of them for a long time now, and over the course of the past year I have put so much distance between them and myself that I only touch base with them once a month.

I told myself I would not allow them to hold me back from living a happy, productive and fulfilled life. I can’t say I have neared any of those goals, but I can say that keeping them and their dysfunctional lifestyles at bay has allowed me to live a somewhat emotionally tame lifestyle.

But a difficulty has presented itself. My mother has signed her competency over to her friend/confidant, who coincidently is a former attorney. This individual has filed four lawsuits to date against my father as my mother’s guardian, and it doesn’t look like he is going to stop anytime soon. My father feels that he is being extorted.

He feels that if my mother is truly incompetent, why sign over power to an individual outside her immediate family? Basically, he feels that a fraud is being committed. And honestly, I can’t say I completely disagree with him. I am not a lawyer, nor I do I know the legal definition of incompetence, but something about this situation makes me want to call “bullshit.” At the same time, I am unsurprised and prefer to sit on the sideline instead of getting tangled in the mess.

I can’t say my father is a complete victim here. He is an attorney, and takes full advantage of that fact. It feels like after all these years of his taking such advantage, my mother will go to whatever lengths possible to get what she feels is rightfully hers, even if it means bending the truth.

My father tries to guilt me into doing something about this. His take is: “You have the power to stop what she is doing. She is wronging me.” I feel like, What’s the use? Why should I get caught up in a problem he helped exacerbate?

My siblings and I have spent enough time as the pawns in their juvenile warring for the past 12 years. Even if I do try and take the reins of being guardian, my mother will undoubtedly fight me on it. Nor will this end the power struggle between my parents. They’ll find something new to fight over.

What I am looking for, Cary, is for someone to tell me that my ambivalence in this situation is right. I feel like this is my time to start my life (I am in my mid-20s) … I have a lot going for me, and I don’t want to be sucked back into their dysfunction. Am I entitled to close my eyes to this situation?

Your opinion please.

Ambivalent Son

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Dear Ambivalent Son,

Of course your ambivalence is right. It is a natural response to an impossible situation.

Yet you must decide. You must decide whether to intervene. And I suggest, for better or worse, that you do try to intervene. I say this fully understanding the difficult emotional consequences such an attempt can have. I say this because you stand at least some chance of avoiding further damage. You stand at least some chance of doing some good.

At least engage your own legal counsel and examine the alternatives. After seeing all the options you may decide that doing nothing is best. At least you will have examined your options thoroughly. I suggest you do this as soon as possible. Such situations can get worse quickly. Assets can disappear; relationships can turn bitter; those who stood by can be burdened with lasting regret that they did not step in sooner.

In suggesting this, I feel like a fool, frankly, for often what happens is this: Even after forgiving oneself and others for shortcomings; even after admitting that we have absolutely zero chance of achieving a better past; even after recognizing that we are powerless over our parents; even after recognizing that we did indeed do what we could, that we did indeed try and were rebuffed, even after weekly sessions in therapy going over it and over it, the painful situation persists and we remain ambivalent and embittered and crippled by its insidious, undermining power: I failed as a son. I failed as the good son, the son with promise. I failed to protect my parents.

The only oasis of blamelessness in this hurricane of guilt and recrimination is the knowledge that one fails in such endeavors not because one is a bad son but because one is powerless over the ultimate fate of others.

This is a difficult thing to keep in mind. It needs constant reinforcement. We do not have godlike powers. If I had godlike powers I would change my parents. I would change my siblings. I would put us all in a big white house by the river. I would take us all back there to a quiet summer street shaded by banyans and mimosas, walking by the seawall, dangling our toes in the water, bicycling to the store for popsicles, devoid of cares, attending to childhood, sure and safe in the embrace of our parents who were young and strong and could be trusted to solve any problem and untie any knot. That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. I would take us back there. I would make life a fantasy. We would all tend lovingly to my parents as they aged and weakened, cooing over them and rocking them to sleep and feeding them with spoons. We would sing them lullabies and change them and protect them from things they cannot comprehend. In love for one another we would sacrifice, each of us, to the extent we were capable of, and each of us would understand that each sibling has gifts and limitations, and we would honor each other for our gifts and our limitations, and we would all take turns taking care of our parents.

That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. But I do not. Neither do you. So we do what we can. To the extent that you can gain some legal power in this matter, I hope you take steps to do so. If you can protect assets and prevent further lawsuits, if you can arrange for binding arbitration between the parties, perhaps you can avert certain catastrophes.

As to precisely how you do this, legally and financially, I respectfully yield to legal and financial experts. My point is more a moral one: You have to try. You may be damaged in the attempt. You may find that suddenly you are the enemy of all. They may all turn against you, including your siblings. But you will have tried.

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