There comes a time when roles reverse between parent and child.

The adult child becomes the caregiver, and the parent becomes a dependent. And navigating this role reversal can be emotionally and financially draining. With so many people unprepared for retirement, adult children increasingly have had to step in to fill the financial gap.

But what if your parents are financially irresponsible? Do you have an obligation to still bail them out?

So much of personal finance involves the emotional currency that we carry in our relationships. An irresponsible adult child often banks on a loving parent to come to his or her rescue.

But things become infinitely more complicated when it’s the mother or father who is being reckless with money. They were there for you and now you feel an obligation to be there for them. So, how can you say no to a parent’s plea for financial assistance?

Or, maybe you’re not asked but you see the need. Sure, your parent makes bad money decisions, but you can’t let them go without their medication, right?

During a recent online discussion, a reader wanted advice about such a situation.

The background: The reader and his wife recently helped her senior parents move into a nearby senior facility. The parents had requested the move, and they are very happy with their new home and environment.

The problem: “Over the years, we have given my in-laws money, always in amounts we could afford,” the husband wrote. “They are often short of money for emergencies or medical bills. They have modest pensions and Social Security that covers their basic expenses. Before the move, we took pictures of my father-in-law’s password because we thought the scraps of paper might get lost. After the move, I logged in to their checking account and found that they participate in online gambling, often hundreds of dollars a month. Because their monthly amount (rent and food) is now withdrawn at the same time that their pension and Social Security go in, their fixed expenses are covered at the senior center. However, they still have expenses such as a car payment, medical bills and money owed to a relative.”

The parent trap: “Should we confront them – or let them continue to play a shell game with their remaining money? My wife is unable to confront her father, and I am inclined to let the chips fall where they may. Do I have a fiduciary responsibility to try to correct this?”

Here’s what I would recommend.

Have a family meeting. The first order of business: A confession and request for forgiveness.

However well meaning, this couple has come into some information they shouldn’t have. Unless the parents said it was OK to view their checking account, there’s been an unauthorized access and a huge violation of their privacy.

If the parents don’t want their adult children to know about their spending habits, the bank-account password needs to be changed immediately.

Ask if it’s OK to discuss what they found. When helping parents, avoid treating them like children. Because of the violation of trust, the reader and his wife can’t delve into what’s going on until there’s an agreement that the information they discovered is open for debate. The couple needs to ask the parents to overlook the means by which they came to know about the gambling.

If it’s a “no,” you have to respect that.

If it’s a “yes,” only then can they share the objection of providing supplementary funds at the same time that there’s a waste of money via gambling.

Or this may be a case where caring trumps privacy. Out-of-character gambling or excessive spending may indicate failing cognitive abilities or the onset of dementia. Seek medical advice if you suspect this might be the situation. There may also be an addiction problem, in which case you can recommend they seek help from Gamblers Anonymous.

If the gambling is part of a larger issue of financial mismanagement, I suggest the parents seek budgeting assistance from a nonprofit consumer-counseling agency.

Refer them to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, at nfcc.org and 800-388-2227.

Technically, a “fiduciary” relationship has not been established in this situation. A legal fiduciary is required to act in the best interest of a person when managing assets.

However, from a personal-finance angle, adult children should of course be acting in the best interest of their parents. To do that, there has to be transparency.

If you’re assisting your parents, ask to see a budget and bank statements because an intervention may be necessary. You don’t want to enable them to live above their means – or yours.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may contact her at:

[email protected]

filed under: