Pay Dirt

My Mother Told My Sister She’d Make Her the Sole Heir to Her Millions

She’s played us against each other our entire lives.

Woman looking over another woman's shoulder at a ledger or notebook
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PIKSEL/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Pay Dirt is Slate’s new money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

My mother played my sister and I against each other all of our lives. This led to an acrimonious sister relationship in adulthood. But in the last 10 years we’ve become friends—a blessing. The one topic we avoided was money. We never admitted that our mother promised each of us to be sole heir to her millions. I had no interest in chasing after elusive inheritance money when my life is blessed with a devoted husband, fulfilling career as a teacher, and a loving family. We’re not rich but comfortable enough. My sister is quite rich.

Advertisement

Our mother is still alive with dementia at age 92. Whenever she had offered to make me the sole heir, I always said, “No, please just make it equal!” I thought she had. Apparently when she made the same offer to my sister, she said, “Great.” She’s sole beneficiary. Should I continue the relationship with her?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—Sisters Still Squabbling

Dear Sisters,

Yes, you should continue your relationship with your sister. You mention that you’re comfortable and that the past 10 years have been a blessing. Money will not be able to replace what you lose if you cut her off.

You also mention that you avoided talking about money, which is not unusual. This column is full of correspondents who didn’t talk about money issues until an inheritance was involved and then it caused exactly the kind of conflict you’re describing here. But it’s not too late!

Advertisement

It would be perfectly reasonable for you to tell your sister you’re hurt by the unfairness of the situation and that you did not and would not take your mother’s offer to make you her sole heir. And it sounds as if this could be another one of your mother’s manipulations to drive a wedge between you. You should discuss that as well, and emphasize that you’ve been grateful that these machinations did not prevent you from being friends for the past decade and you’d like to continue to do so. If your sister also values your relationship, this can probably be resolved.

Dear Pay Dirt,

After realizing that all of our far-flung parents (two divorced sets, four couples, eight people total) planned to visit after our baby’s birth in August, my husband and I proposed a monthlong Airbnb near our house so that all the rotating family would have a place to stay. Normally we’re happy to host overnighters, but managing a steady stream of them along with a brand-new infant seemed overwhelming.

Advertisement

My question is how to approach paying for this equitably. The total cost for the rental is nearly $3,000. Our parents have varying degrees of financial comfort: Some could easily swing the whole thing, while some would find $400 to $500 to be a big deal, especially since they’ve never had to pay for lodging before when visiting us. Everyone seemed to think the rental was a great idea, but nobody mentioned payment. Perhaps they all thought my husband and I would be picking up the cost—and perhaps we should be, since this was our idea and for our comfort. We could technically afford it, though our finances have been pretty well tackled by medical/birthing/baby expenses. What’s the script for this conversation?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

—No More Room at the Inn

Dear No More Room,

This is a situation where you should probably be transparent about your own expenses so that everyone in the family understands that it’s not tenable for you to pick up the entire cost of the Airbnb, but neither is it tenable to have a steady stream of overnight guests with a newborn. Make sure to note that under different circumstances, you’re happy to have overnight guests, as usual, but everybody at once is going to be too much, so a shared rental makes practical sense. Then try putting the problem to each of them. Mention that you’re willing to manage logistics, but unsure of how they want to handle payment. Maybe note that if this is too expensive, you’re willing to subsidize some of the cost (if that’s an option for you) so that any members of your family who’d struggle to pay are not embarrassed or resentful.  But I’m betting that between eight adults, they can probably figure out a solution that works for everyone.

Advertisement

Dear Pay Dirt,

I am a single mother of three and live in a townhome. I’m renting. I desperately want my children to have a home. I purchased my first home in 2007 but sold it due to a breast cancer diagnosis. I don’t have 20 percent down, and at this point that would take years, and my kids will be grown by then. I’m in massive student loan debt. I’m thinking about getting a second job for six months to save for the down payment. My kids deserve a home. Thoughts?

Advertisement

—My Kids Deserve More

Dear My Kids Deserve More,

Your kids have a home, and it’s built around you, not the structure you live in. That you don’t own that structure is probably not something they care about or notice. Homeownership is often treated as a virtue in America, but it’s an amoral financial decision, and there’s nothing wrong with renting. In my opinion, the overzealous Clinton-era push for homeownership helped precipitate the 2008 credit crisis and the financial exploitation of a lot of people who wanted to be homeowners but couldn’t really afford it. It also created a stigma around renting that I think has been damaging to a lot of people.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Renting is more common than homeownership in lots of places where people make good money and raise happy, healthy children, so I think you need to examine why you feel that you need to own instead of rent, especially since you already have debt to pay down. Is it because you think it would be a good investment for your children in the future? Do you feel stigmatized because you’re a renter? Are you concerned that changing lease terms might force you to move regularly? If this is an important goal you have, it’s fine to pursue, but make sure you understand your own motivations, especially if you’re considering a second job in order to do it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dear Pay Dirt,

My brother was the executor of our late mother’s estate, and I was kind of a jerk about it for reasons I can’t really remember. The thing is that he turned out to be really good at it. He kept everyone (me plus grandkids and other family) fully in the loop on the big stuff, never bothered us with small details, and all the money and property was distributed efficiently and equitably. I’d really like to amend my will and appoint him to be my own executor, but I’m a little ashamed of my previous behavior. I never apologized, but he’s never held it against me, so I guess it’s water under the bridge at this point. Would it be too awkward to make this request of him?

Advertisement

—Give Me a Way to Will

Dear Give Me a Way,

This is a great opportunity to apologize to your brother for you period of inexplicable jerkitude. It sounds like he’s not holding it against you anyway, but I’m sure he would greatly appreciate your acknowledgment that you treated him badly, and I think it would bring you closer together, which is a great outcome. So lead with that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Then tell him that you admired the great job he did with your mother’s estate and ask nicely, noting that you’d understand if he said no given your prior behavior. The worst case here is that you clear the air with your brother but have to find another executor. The former makes it worth doing by itself.

Advertisement

—Elizabeth

Classic Prudie

I am a high school senior, and will be applying to colleges and for scholarships soon. I am having a disagreement with my parents regarding one possible scholarship. I am eligible, because of an ancestor that was a Confederate, to apply for scholarship money from an organization that promotes the “grand history” of the Confederacy. I can’t stomach their beliefs, and I do not want to apply for their scholarship, nor use their money to go to college. My parents think any money is good money, and that getting one of these scholarships doesn’t say anything about me as a person, but I completely disagree. I think it would imply that I was proud of my Confederate ancestors, which I am not, and that I support this organization, which I don’t. Am I being “too PC” or are my parents wrong in not considering the source of this possible money?

Advertisement