Caring for an aging parent is stressful. Caring for parents with money or credit problems is twice as stressful. In or out of a nursing home, if your parent is ringing up credit card bills with no money to pay them off, that's a problem. However, unless you have a joint account with your mother, you have no obligation to pay the bills.
Who Has to Pay
If your parent has savings or investment income, the credit card company might sue her for the money. If she has no assets and her income consists of Social Security benefits, the company's out of luck -- creditors can't take Social Security benefits. You can choose to pay her debts, but you aren't legally required to do so. Her credit spending may affect you though, because after she dies, the credit card company can demand her estate pay the debt. This could reduce or wipe out your inheritance.
Check for Abuse
It can't hurt to look at the bill and see exactly where the money is going. It's possible someone has gotten access to the card and is using it. Someone may be manipulating or threatening your parent into buying things. Elder abuse is a crime, and you can protect your parent by reporting it to the authorities. If you can prove the purchases were on a stolen card, the law limits how much your parent has to pay.
Looking for Answers
If your parent is the one spending all the money, find out why. Telemarketers may have seized onto her as an easy mark. She may be spending money because she's miserable and ordering pizza or jewelry makes her feel better. It's possible she's reached the point where she's not able to manage her money; she doesn't track her spending and has no idea how badly she's in the hole.
Once you know the problem, you can work on a solution. It may be as simple as giving her an afternoon outside, visiting the nursing home regularly or Skyping with her so she has more to live for than spending money. If the problems run deeper, the only solution may be to ask her to give up her cards. This is a sensitive subject, so tread carefully. You may both find it easier if you ask someone she trusts -- a friend or a clergyman -- to start the discussion.
A Durham, NC resident, Fraser has written about law, starting a business, balancing your budget and fighting evictions, among other legal and financial topics.