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Runaway Spending after Brain Injury by Thomas Henson Jr. and Carol Svec

Brain injury finances turn into disaster

The call from my sister started pleasant enough: “Could you send me an early birthday gift?” Ann’s voice sounded light, almost happy.

“Sure,” I said. “What would you like?”

There was an ominous pause. “What can you afford?”

That was how our family learned about my sister’s brain injury finances which spelled financial disaster. Within days we were all sucked in, fighting to rebuild yet another aspect of her life.

Ann’s brain injury was caused by a fist-sized meningioma and the surgery to remove it. She seemed to thrive until she got divorced five years ago. Then—on her own for the first time—Ann struggled to take over paying household bills. It wasn’t until the “birthday present” call that our family learned that this particular task was beyond her capabilities.

We learned that Ann had maxed out seven credit cards. Collection agencies were hounding her. And scammers loved her—she gave the equivalent of six mortgage payments to a “matchmaker” who advertised with a homemade sign on the side of a highway.

Financially, Ann had fallen as far as someone can go without ending up homeless (although she was on her way there, too). My family has become painfully aware of a sad truth: Ann’s brain injury took away her “money sense.” Managing her finances was simply beyond her ability due to her brain injury.

The Magic of money

Runaway spending and inability to manage money are common among people with certain types of brain injury, especially with frontal lobe damage. That’s where the “executive functions” reside, including the abilities to plan, make decisions, process information, and control inappropriate behavior, such as spending a year’s salary on shoes or football tickets. These changes can be called “brain injury finances.”

Despite the sometimes staggering levels of debt, families often don’t see the problem. Unlike other behaviors, spending is almost magical—wave a plastic card, and “poof!” you’re now $20,000 deeper in debt. It’s quick and invisible (unless shopping bags start piling up). Plus, in many families, money is a taboo topic. But that attitude only fosters silence, secrets, and shame… followed by emergency calls begging for help.

Here are solutions to these brain injury finances that we have found helpful, some with specific notes for families and individuals with brain injury:

Open a dialog, and open the books.

People with brain injury often feel embarrassed and frustrated about the abilities that were stolen from them, which can make it difficult to admit to yet another area of disability.

Families: You’ll get more straight answers if you create an atmosphere of acceptance that is free of blame.

Individual: The conversation will be difficult, but stick with it. Be honest. Only then can you put together a workable plan for getting you out of debt.

Define the problem.

With investigation, patterns will emerge. Is the problem one of spending too much? Not writing checks in a timely manner? Poor record-keeping? From that understanding you can put processes in place to address the issues.

Get the family involved.

Families: The problem of unfettered spending may require constant supervision. Consider appointing a family member to take over the checkbook and do monthly reviews of finances.

Individuals: As difficult as it may be to relinquish control, the solution to your financial worries may require more hands-on help from your family. It may help to think of it as allowing your family to take over the stress of money.

Sign up for notifications.

Banks and credit card companies can provide email notifications when bank account funds dip below a specified level, or when spending increases above a certain dollar amount. Sign up for these notifications so that there are no major surprises from month to month.

Assign a Limited Power of Attorney.

Power of Attorney (POA) allows a specified family member to have access to an individual’s accounts and financial records so they can monitor spending and perform other financial activities.

Finally, understand that you don’t have to go it alone. There are experts who can help. Ask your doctor or attorney for referrals to reputable experts who may be useful. For example, Life Care Planners provide guidance for the “big picture.” They can help assess current and future financial needs—throughout your entire lifetime—and formulate a plan to best maintain your quality of life. Case Managers deal with the nuts and bolts of daily living, such as learning how to set up procedures for remembering to pay bills, or arranging for transportation if necessary. And if the situation is truly dire, consider talking with a bankruptcy attorney.

Under the best of circumstances, money problems are difficult, and brain injury compounds the strain. As you struggle to climb out of the financial trenches, keep family close—as a resource and as support. It’s easier to climb up when you have strong shoulders to stand on.

About the Authors

Thomas Henson Jr. is a partner and Head of the Complex Litigation Group at HensonFuerst Attorneys, based in Raleigh and Rocky Mount, NC. He serves on the board of directors of the Brain Injury Association of North Carolina (BIANC), and in 2012, Thomas was appointed by the governor to a four-year term on the North Carolina Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Council.

Thomas remains an active member of the Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice.

Carol Svec is the creative director at HensonFuerst Attorneys, and an award-winning health and wellness writer.  She is also a loving sister to Ann, whose story was told in this article.


This article is from Brain Injury Journey – Hope, Help, Healing, Vol 1, 2014.