For David Sheff, there is nothing worse than the sheer
terror of witnessing your own child slip away into a life of drug abuse.
The San Francisco writer felt helpless as his son Nic became
addicted to substances like methamphetamine and heroin over the course of a
decade, beginning in 1997 when Nic was around 15.
Nic eventually triumphed, and has now been clean for more
than five years, to his parents' great joy and relief. But his lengthy
struggles with addiction had another long-term victim: Their family
budget. "Credit cards would disappear, checks would disappear, stuff would
go missing," remembers Sheff, who wrote the 2008 book "Beautiful
Boy" about his family's experiences. "Eventually he even broke into his little brother's
piggy bank; that's how bad it got," he said in an interview. "Then he
would disappear, and we would be terrified for him, and just send more
money," he says.
"I did that
until someone told me that sending money to a drug addict is like giving a
loaded gun to someone who is suicidal." But even when his son began to turn
a corner, it wasn't the end of the family's financial challenges.
Next came the rehabilitation programs, which can cost $25,000
or more every month, and be required multiple times when relapses occur.
Sheff's son went through six such programmes, and Sheff's
insurance ran out early, leaving him with towering bills. He spent $60,000
on his son's care, $28,000 of that in instalments that he only recently
Having an addict in the family presents a deeply troubling
dilemma for spouses and parents. How do you help those you love, while
protecting your own financial future? After all, a serious substance abuser is
likely to do whatever it takes to feed an addiction. That might include tapping a partner's savings account, home
equity, individual retirement accounts, or even the college savings and
piggy banks of their kids.
Even if the addict isn't sneaking money, relatives might
spend every penny they have willingly to help fund a successful
recovery. "I've heard of relatives literally selling everything, mortgaging
everything," says Sheff.
No options left
"Then you're not
only dealing with the terror of losing a child, but with being broke as well,
with no idea of what's going to happen in the future. And since relapses
are part of the deal, what if you sell everything to help, and then you're
faced with the same crisis all over again? Then you have no options
left." It's an alarmingly common problem.
According to the 2012
National Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 22.2 million Americans had
abused or been dependent on drugs or alcohol within the previous year. So what
is a loving spouse, parent or child to do in such a situation? Here are some
Check your financial
accounts carefully to get a handle on exactly what is going on. "Addicts
are very skilled at hiding transactions and siphoning cash away," says
Brent Neiser, the Denver-based senior director with the National Endowment for
Financial Education. "That's why you need to be hyper aware of your
personal finances." Some red flags that an addict is at work, according to
Neiser: Savings accounts being depleted more rapidly than usual, regular
payments going to organizations you're unfamiliar with and home equity lines of
credit being tapped.
Keep an eye out for cash advances, evidence of payday
lending, credit card or bank statements being rerouted to different addresses
and changes to credit reports, he says.
If you suspect something is up, couples should establish
separate financial accounts in each spouse's name. That doesn't mean spouses
necessarily have to give up anything – the usual state rules would apply to
splitting up marital property in the event of a divorce, for example, said Matt
McClintock, vice president of education for Wealth Counsel, a membership
organization for estate planners.
Set up a trust
But it would act as a barrier to any short-term raiding by
the addict, who might have more trouble getting to money in an account that
didn't have his or her name on it.
In some situations, it might be worth setting up a trust.
You could arrange for large assets like a home or planned inheritance to be
housed in the trust and have it administrated by a spouse or a third party such
as an attorney.
That would help prevent a user from tapping those sources to
fuel addictions. "It can be sensible to have a third party as a co-trustee,
since spouses can sometimes be bullied, or throw up their hands in
frustration," says Bill Conway, a tax attorney specializing in wealth
preservation with Conway & Pannell in McLean, Virginia.
A trust could also help if a parent is planning an estate
with concerns for a drug-addicted child. "A trust could buy a home for the
person to live in, or always provide money for food, while making sure those
funds aren't being converted to pay for drugs," he says.
No easy answers
The key question: Do you use up your own financial resources
to keep a roof over your child's or partner's head? Or do you practice tough
love and cut them off, which would restrict their cash but could precipitate a crisis?
These are questions with no easy answers, and should be handled case-by-case,
likely with the help of addiction specialists.
Sheff recommends targeted assistance aimed at keeping the
person off the streets. "You want to do everything you can to help them get
well," says Sheff. "But you don't want to lose your house or spend
every penny you have, because that's not going to do anybody any good."