After I received the following letter, I reached out again to prolific commenter, “Addie Pray,” our resident legal expert who has contributed some law-related advice in the past. She was nice enough to extend some of her superstar legal expertise again to answer the following letter:
Let me preface this letter by saying that my relationship with my mother has been a downward spiral since I was about 12 years old. Along with being verbally abusive and a compulsive liar, she may, I think, have psychological problems that fuel her erratic, irrational, and manipulative behavior. Still, most of my life I felt guilty for telling her off or ignoring her (I am 23 now). About 9 months ago (August of last year), I severed ties with her after a particularly explosive argument over something rather insignificant. She tried to get back in touch around Christmas and again around her birthday in February, but was rather hostile and controlling about it, so I told her I did not feel comfortable having a relationship until she got a better handle on her emotions and anger issues. She said she had no plans to change and I made no further contact either time.
Just as I began to feel guilty again for cutting her out of my life, I found out today that she forged my signature on a refund check which was mistakenly sent to her house last October. I contacted the bank and they promised to get my money back and said they “might press charges” against her. However, since the check was only for $60, I doubt they will. At this point, if she is willing to commit a crime for a petty $60, I am afraid of what else she might do and feel like she should face some consequence for this. My first question is: if the bank doesn’t take any action against her, is there any legal recourse I can pursue for what she did (either for check fraud or for opening my mail without permission)? And on a more personal level, how should I handle our relationship from now on if she contacts me again? This is my last straw in terms of feeling guilty for severing ties, but I’m not sure how to come to terms with the very real possibility of not speaking to her again for the rest of my life. — Mama Drama
Addie Pray writes:
To answer your first question, sure, you may have legal recourse, but I doubt you will prevail. If the bank declines to press criminal charges, you always could. Unless crime is slow these days, however, I doubt the police will pursue a case against your mother over $60. You could also seek damages in a civil lawsuit, though it will be a challenge to find an attorney to take your case where damages are only $60 (or $0 if the bank returns your money as promised). The filing fee alone would cost more, and any emotional pain and suffering you have experienced would likely be hard to prove and/or not recoverable in the first place. There’s also the “ick factor” to consider. Do you really want to press charges against and/or sue your mother just to teach her a lesson? Ick.
As for how to handle your relationship with your mother moving forward, proceed with caution and protect yourself. Close any joint accounts you may have. Update your bank and credit card companies with your current address and phone number. Remove your mother as your emergency contact. Change your email address and all your online passwords. Do all you can to limit your mother’s ability to meddle in your affairs, even if that means ceasing all contact for now.
If your mother is harassing or threatening you, consider seeking an order of protection. An order of protection would make it illegal for your mother to contact you for the duration of the order. If she does, then she would face criminal liability for violating the order. The police can provide you with information about how to obtain an order of protection and what type of conduct merits a protective order.
I am sorry that your relationship with your mother is the way that it is and that she does not appear willing to change. It’s very sad, to say the least. But “forever” is a long time, and people change. She could surprise you in the future.
[Disclaimer: The information contained in this Website does not constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to your particular issues.]
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Kristina May 10, 2012, 3:11 pm
Oy. Similar thing happened to me. When I was very little, my mom wiped my college savings account clean–thankfully it didn’t have that much in it yet. Not long after I turned 18, I decided to be responsible and open a credit card to create good credit. Until my mom got a hold of it and maxed out my credit card, and now I’m paying for it. I actually haven’t severed ties with my mom, mainly due to the fact she is very obviously mentally ill (like the LW’s mom) and my mom is too fragile if I break off all contact with her. I seem to wonder if this letter has anything to do with Mother’s Day coming up this Sunday–but anyways, if you don’t want to speak to your mom ever again, then do that, but you really have to stick with it and not go back and forth. I don’t think you have any reason for feeling guilty. And maybe years later you’ll decide to let her back in your life–or not. Whatever works for you.
Tax Geek May 10, 2012, 3:56 pm
>Until my mom got a hold of it and maxed out my credit card, and now I’m paying for it.
You shouldn’t be. That is theft and you should be able to contact the CC company saying you did not authorize those charges.
I work in a financial institution May 10, 2012, 4:31 pm
Unless she is willing to press charges against her mother, she is responsible for the charges. Same with the LW. It’s unlikely the bank would press charges. We see this sort of thing all the time unfortunately, but if the thief is known to you, you must press charges in order to receive any recourse.
6napkinburger May 10, 2012, 6:38 pm
But don’t some credit card companys offer fraud protection? I know I pay a yearly fee for Amex because, in addition to fraud protection, they will act as the mediator in disputed charges. But that is in addition to their fraud protection.
I work in a financial institution May 11, 2012, 11:14 am
There is fraud protection on Visa, Mastercard, and I’d assume Amex and Discover as well. But that extends only so far as it being fraud from a merchant or other scammer. As soon as the investigations reveals that you are related to the fraudster in some way, it becomes something where you have to press charges – otherwise the potential is that a victim wasn’t really a victim. Does that make sense? The companies have to protect themselves from fraud as well – and not everyone who says they’re a victim is a victim.
In this case she is most definitely a victim – but the problem beyond that is that it’s not something protected by the credit card company, it’s her own check. From what I understand, filing a police report regarding it is all that is really needed, but I don’t know if there’s more to pressing charges, such as taking someone to court. I *believe* that the police report is all that is needed for the financial institution to feel that it’s legitimate fraud with a family member.
Kristina May 10, 2012, 8:31 pm
It’s a complicated story, but I did negotiate with the credit card company at the time and worked out an agreement. It does not appear on my credit score, and my dad actually pays for it to make it up. I meant paying for it in more than the physical, monetary way. It taught me more about money than I cared to know at the time. But I’m basically over it. I think this sort of fraud with people you know happens a lot more than people might think. And I think the situation is different for everyone, like the LW. I don’t really want to cut contact with my mom, but the LW’s relationship with her mom is different, and maybe it makes more sense for her to cut contact.
amy May 11, 2012, 9:39 am
In a way, it might have been easier for you to deal with the payments with help from your dad than deal with your ill mother.
I hope it all works out for you 🙂
cporoski May 10, 2012, 4:23 pm
LW, this is why you should check your credit score once a year. She has your SS# and could open things in your name. Be careful and I am so sorry this is happening to you.
katie May 10, 2012, 3:36 pm
i do not blame you for wanting to cut ties. remember, just because people are blood doesnt mean that you *need* them or *must have* them in your life. sure, i think you should try hard. and sure, cutting ties over petty things is stupid. but, this is not a petty thing. this is an ongoing problem, a terrible toxic relationship, i think you have more then enough reason to cut off contact. i would too.
landygirl May 10, 2012, 4:50 pm
Exactly, the mother in this and many cases didn’t give a second thought to their heinous actions. It is beyond me that anyone would feel loyalty to a parent who is capable of turning off their sensitivity chip and robbing their child blind and ruining their credit.
Blood relations aren’t chained to you, you can leave them behind if they are toxic.
Iwannatalktosampson May 10, 2012, 3:41 pm
YAY AP advice. This is really good advice. I would like to second the “ick” factor. Listen everyone loves revenge. But do you really want to drag the courts through your personal issue with your mom? I hate to see court resources used on a grudge.
By all means cut off contact with her. But if the bank reimburses you you really no longer have a real claim against your mom. Maybe you do – but I think you should really think hard about what you’re fighting for at that point – because it won’t be the money since that has been refunded. So is it to embarrass her? Punish her? I like to live a drama free life so if it was me I would probably just cease all contact and move on.
dabbler May 10, 2012, 3:58 pm
This is the part that sucks though. I don’t see it so much as revenge, but as standing up for herself and letting her mother know that her behavior is unacceptable, and she has consequences for her actions. It’s sad that the cost so far outweighs the benefit of taking any action against it. I was in a similar situation in a job, and I ended up not perusing anything legal, because the cost was so much more than anything I could possibly gain. So they’re free to keep abusing employees without any recourse, and in the end, I felt like a doormat, and by not doing anything about it it felt like I was saying it was ok to treat me like trash. it just wasn’t worth it for me financially, and I could just walk away from them. In the LW’s situation, it’s much more likely this won’t be the last time. Emotionally though, I wish I could have done something, not for revenge, but because they will continue to be asshats just because they can.
katie May 10, 2012, 4:06 pm
this is so true.. and it is so true in SO many cases. bullying, employment like you said, sports teams, celebrities, ect, ect, ect… so many people get away with things they should not because the process of punishment is so long, drawn out and expensive. its sad. i think that if more people actually got in some sort of trouble for breaking the rules, people would break them less.
Turtledove May 10, 2012, 4:28 pm
But I think her mom is being punished– she’s just being punished by her daughter’s refusal to speak to her, not by anything the courts would or could do.
dabbler May 10, 2012, 4:39 pm
Eh, I can’t s
dabbler May 10, 2012, 4:45 pm
It’s hard to post from my phone. 🙁
First world problems…
dabbler May 10, 2012, 4:44 pm
Eh, I can’t speak for her state of mind, but I didn’t get that vibe at all. She sounds like a mature, reasonable person, that is tired of putting up with the bullshit of a toxic person in her life, but has repeatedly made the effort because it’s her mother. I didn’t see anything about punishment, but she is setting boundaries and being very clear about the way she will allow herself to be treated, and feels guilty for it.
Jess of CGW May 10, 2012, 3:44 pm
I’m so sorry that you have to live with this. I have no idea what your mother’s mental or emotional problems might be, but it immediately reminded me The Sociopath Next Door (Martha Stout). I have a friend with a father who sounds a lot like your mom and she said that book changed her life. It helped her stop feeling sorry for her dad and stop holding out hope that he would change.
Another similar reference book would be by Robert Hare, The Mask of Sanity.
Amanda May 10, 2012, 4:05 pm
I know what this is like because it sounds very similar to my mother. My mother opened accounts in my name that went delinquent and I didn’t know until I wanted to finance a car and there were collections on my credit report. I did not want to have to pay for the accounts and deal with a bad credit report so I filed a police report which was forwarded to the collectors. The accounts were removed from my credit report. The police didn’t do much but warn her to not do it again, or she would be arrested. As far as i know the creditors did nothig because my mom has no assests and a few thousand dollars wasnt worth it. This is the sort of thing that will escalate if there are no repercussions with your mom. I still talk to my mom but we are not close and don’t spend a lot of time. I somewhat have guilty feelings about not being close with my mom but would not feel guilty about calling the police if she stole my identity again. I don’t think the lw should feel guilty either, it is hard to grow up with an abusive parent who then tries to wreck your life when you are an adult. I am not saying 60 dollars is a wrecked life but it may escalate like my situation and then you won’t be able to finance a car you need or buy that house because of bad credit.
Samantha May 10, 2012, 4:02 pm
Great advice, AP, and I definitely liked that you asked the LW to consider the “ick factor.”
But I have a question: isn’t opening someone’s mail actually a Federal crime? I’m not saying the LW should press charges for this because it’s still only $60. Bu would there be different legal recourse since it was a check in the mail? I am just curious.
6napkinburger May 10, 2012, 4:31 pm
This isn’t legal advice, but I’m guessing not. You can authorize people to do just about anything for you, including signing your name on legal documents and opening your mail. And this authorization can sometimes be implied. And the mail statute probably has some sort of fraudulent intent aspect to it, so if the mom opened the letter believing she was acting on your behalf and she had a reasonable belief that she had authorization, she’s probably fine. Or if she just didn’t read the name and believed it was to her when she opened it, as it was sent to her house, she’s also probably fine. But again, not legal advice. Ask a lawyer before doing anything with this.
cporoski May 10, 2012, 4:45 pm
No, It is mail fraud and it is jail time. That is what alot of the Ponzi scheme guys had. But will a prosecutor do it over $60? It think that is small claims court if anything.
Guy Friday May 10, 2012, 5:12 pm
No, it’s not mail fraud. 6napkin is right in that for it to be mail fraud there would have to be the deliberate intent to open mail she knew to be someone else’s, which is unlikely to be proven here.
Something More May 10, 2012, 9:14 pm
Wouldn’t the fact that she forged the sig on the check that wasn’t hers prove that she opened it knowing it wasn’t hers to begin with?
Guy Friday May 11, 2012, 9:27 am
No, it wouldn’t. For that to work, you’d have to prove she could clearly see that it was a check made out to someone else before she opened the letter, which isn’t as easy to prove if they’re, say, not using an envelope with a window. So, yes, once she opened it and realized that it wasn’t hers, her signing it is either fraud or theft at the state level, depending upon the way that state’s statutes are written . But mail fraud — the federal offense, I mean — would require that intent to be formed BEFORE she opened it.
oldie May 10, 2012, 5:05 pm
Your mother sounds like an untreated seriously mentally ill person. Not much you can do with someone who refuses to seek treatment. Getting tossed in prison is one of the few ways of forcing the mentally ill person to go on medication. We have experienced this with friends and a relative. They never think there is anything wrong with them. The relative would come out of prison in fairly decent shape, because of enforced medication and would then be good for a few years, since staying on meds was a condition of probation. After that, the decline was rapid.
bittergaymark May 10, 2012, 5:13 pm
Ugh. No comment from me. Wendy nailed this one… Just jawdroppingly awful Mom here.
Guy Friday May 10, 2012, 5:21 pm
I’m not quite sure why everyone here keeps claiming that there’s a cost-benefit analysis for the prosecution of this offense by a district attorney’s court. There’s absolutely no cost-benefit analysis to be had; if you bring it to them, they WILL charge it, and then the LW’s mother, if convicted, will be forced to pay for the prosecution in court costs, the costs of probation/jail (if she’s placed there), and/or a fine, and that’s besides restitution to the bank or the LW. It’s not like they only prosecute cases based on large sums of money; you can be convicted of retail theft for stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store, and I’ve had clients who have been.
As for small claims court — and setting aside the moral/emotional “Is it worth doing this” argument — keep in mind two points:
1.) Most states have statutes barring claims for any assets covered under criminal restitution attempts. This applies if (a) you get it as part of a criminal case, or (b) you claim it as part of a criminal case and your mother’s counsel argues “inability to pay” (which doesn’t seem likely when it’s $60, but, again, I’ve done it before when necessary.)
2.) In every state I’m familiar with, you can claim not only the money lost, but the filing fee, reasonable rates for hours missed from work, etc. So, ultimately, it’s not like it costs you any money in the long run.
theattack May 10, 2012, 10:27 pm
I like your style, Guy Friday. You seem like the kind of attorney I would want to hire.
Guy Friday May 10, 2012, 10:56 pm
Well, golly gee willikers. I’m blushing 🙂
Something More May 10, 2012, 9:30 pm
This sucks, LW – I know. My mom took a credit card out in my name when I moved across the country at 19. My husband at the time and I flew back home for my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary about six months later and she offered to pay for the tickets. A couple years later, I found out about the card she never made payments on when trying to take out a small loan and my credit was shot. I contacted the CC company, sent them all the necessary documentation that I didn’t live where the card was used/billed to but they said that since my mom used that card to purchase my plane ticket, I benefitted from the account and was therefore liable for it. Lovely.
My advice: if this is something you feel she would do again, like a compulsive behavior type thing, you may want to file charges to show her that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. The others are right – she has your SSN and other personal information so it would be fairly easy to do this again, and next time it could very well be more than $60. At the very least, continue to cut her out of your life until she can prove that she has changed.
My relationship with my mom is a lot better. We talked about what happened (among a lot of other things that were going on between us) and have (mostly) forgiven her. It took a LONG time to get to that point.
deaddoc May 11, 2012, 1:03 am
I haven’t willingly talked to my mother in three years, and I regret none of it. At first I felt lonely that I didn’t have a mother in my life, but after a couple months I realized how less stressed I was from not dealing with her constant manipulations and accusations. This is a vile woman who went out of her way to make my life as miserable as possible whenever I didn’t follow along with her lies and schemes to steal money from my grandma. She legitimately believes that everyone is below her and should serve her every need.
My point is that there are people in your life, including family, who are nothing but cancer. They will not change to be better for you, and your best course of action is to cut them out completely. You don’t keep a little bit of them around just in case it decides to go from malignant to benign, you get rid of it completely and once you’ve healed you celebrate with your friends your new lease on life. Get away from your mother; change your number, and don’t respond to any attempts at contact. Make family aware that you cannot be around her unless absolutely necessary, and will not speak to her. If they love you they will understand and do their best to respect your wishes.
DMR May 11, 2012, 4:55 am
You could pursue it. But don’t.
Prosecuting your own mother over $60 dollars is, quite frankly, contemptible. The temptation is understandable – there’s no denying that – but I’m telling you straight up how it will be perceived by many. Okay, so she nicked sixty bucks that was yours and you can prove it. Good for you. And sure, she’s manipulative, controlling and pathetic. But as they say around here, “move on already!”
A legal case will entwine your life closely with hers for some time to come, until the whole thing is played out. That’s the exact opposite direction you want to go in. You want her to be taking up less of your time and energy, not more, even if it is to teach her a lesson.
She won’t learn the lesson anyway. She is a lost cause. MOA.
And here’s a new way to think about her. You’re the adult, she’s the child. If you look at her that way, you might actually be able to have a semblence of a relationship down the road.
Sunshine Brite May 11, 2012, 8:07 am
I would actually consider spending the money on an identity protection/credit monitoring system where you would be alerted as others try to access services using your information. Your mother likely still has your personal information around somewhere in her possession.
As for the relationship, that should be guided by you. Make sure to do what feels comfortable for you in the long run even if it is the harder decision to make.
amy May 11, 2012, 9:35 am
LW!!! I know I’m late into this conversation but I hope you see this.
I have a mother who is extremely mentally ill. Munchausens, pathological lying, you name it, she’s got it. She’s never been diagnosed. She’s never stolen from me either, but I’ve had to cut her out of my life for my own health.
She kicked me out of her house seven years ago and told lies about me to my sisters and my family, to the point where my sisters didn’t talk to me for years. They still believe the things that my mother said about me to this day. Four years later, she decided that she wanted to try to have me back in her life, and I was allowed back home for Christmas.
Shortly after that, she disappeared, lied about where she was, etc. She said she was being followed, attacked, stabbed, etc. She said that she was under police watch when she was attacked in her apartment, so she had to dissappear and leave the area.
I went to the police and filed a missing persons report (before she got into contact with me and told me that she had to leave the area) and was terrified that everything she said had been true, that she had been attacked, and was in trouble. I thought she was dead. It turns out, the police had never heard of her. She was lying. She was also living in Long Island with a boyfriend, not in a battered woman’s shelter as she told me (which I found out after months of playing parent to her).
All of this was too much for me to handle. I started to have panic attacks and play parent to her. I would talk to her, then call her mother, and tell the mother that my mother was still alive. My mother even went so far as to tell her mother that the cops and I found her beaten in a hospital when I filed the missing persons report. Obviously not true.
I learned that none of this was my fault. I had to cut ties with her so that I could get my head on straight and learn how to deal with her problems.
Your mother will not change. The only person that you can change is yourself. And sometimes, that means stepping away.
I beat the hell out of myself when I cut ties with my mother until I came to terms (with professional help and lots of support) with the fact that my mother is sick and she will not change.
Please don’t feel guilty about your strained relationship or having to step away. My heart goes out to you LW because I’ve had to do the same thing with my mother for my own health.