Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
Many years ago, my grandmother purchased two beach houses right next to each other for the purposes of bringing our large family together for reunions every summer. These beach houses are closest to where my dad (her son) lives, so he’s managed their care for many years. Our family also got used to using the houses ourselves during the off-season and throughout the summer. When my grandmother got older, she gifted the houses to her children, with each child having equal ownership of the property.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my uncle’s family checked with us to see if we had plans to use either house. We didn’t, and my uncle, his wife, and their daughter and her family moved in to one of the houses for five months. They all lived in New York City and said they felt safer in the beach house. They also said we could use the second house whenever we wanted. (For reference, the houses are about 20 yards apart from each other.) The issue is, my side of the family really likes to use the property as a retreat. Having my uncle’s whole family in one of the houses ruins the experience for us. We’d rather not go than go while they’re there. So them being there meant that for those five months we couldn’t use the property.
As the pandemic kicks up again, I’m worried that my uncle and his family will want to use the property again for an extended period. They say the rule should be that as many families as can safely use the property during a pandemic should use it. This doesn’t feel fair to us, because them being there means my family essentially can’t use the property at all. Whenever we try to negotiate, things get heated, and now my uncle’s family wants to get a lawyer and a mediator involved. Also, my cousin (my uncle’s daughter) isn’t really speaking to me anymore. Since we all have equal ownership of the property, what’s fair?
—Family Beach House
Dear Family Beach House,
You state that you previously have used the property when it suits you. If this is the case, then why can’t your uncle and his family use it to weather a pandemic? I understand it’s not preferable, but unless I am missing something, your family can still stay in the second beach house while his family is in the other one. The vibe of your quiet retreat may be diminished, but he is fully within his rights as a co-owner. You also don’t offer any details about exactly how his family “ruins the experience” for you, so it’s hard to see this whole picture.
If negotiations are not going anywhere and the tension escalates, it’s best your family seeks outside help. The first avenue you should pursue is a mediator, not an attorney. A mediator will allow both parties to discuss their side, together and then privately. Then they can help negotiate an agreement between the parties and write up a deal that outlines the terms.
If that ends in a stalemate, find an estate attorney with experience in partition sales. With a partition sale, the attorney can petition the court for an equal distribution of assets. In this case, it could be your father and uncle each receiving their own house, or selling so they both can liquidate the property and move on. Your uncle may choose to avoid court and buy out your dad (and any other siblings), but that is going to be between them and their attorneys. But the cheapest and least damaging option would be learning how to enjoy one of the open houses and giving your uncle’s family the opportunity to do the same.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My fiancée, “Cindy,” and I are getting married this year. Our biggest issue is Cindy’s mother, “Jan.” Jan is in her early 60s and makes a good living, but she spends compulsively and is in serious financial trouble as a result. She owes a significant amount of money to the IRS (no one knows exactly how much), and she’s always one to four months behind on her mortgage. She has no savings or retirement plan to fall back on and will have to live with us or Cindy’s brother, “Eric,” when she’s no longer working.
Jan frequently borrows money from Cindy and Eric. I am solely in charge of mine and Cindy’s finances. Years ago, after Cindy lent her mother a more significant amount of money than usual and went into debt herself because of it, I created a “mom fund” with the money Jan paid back. Since then, when Jan needs money, it comes from the mom fund, and when Jan returns the money, it goes back into the mom fund.
Recently, Jan has been unable to fully pay Cindy back. Right now, she owes Cindy about $200, and she owes Eric $1,000. Cindy and I just bought a house, and a huge chunk of our remaining savings will be going to our wedding this fall. In addition, Cindy desperately wants to have kids (I’d be fine with or without), but we can’t afford to have kids and fully support her mother on our current salaries. (We are both women, so getting pregnant alone will cost a significant amount.)
Although we won’t have to fully support Jan for another five to 15 years, I feel like Jan has become a financial albatross around our necks. How do Cindy and I come to an agreement about the extent to which we’re willing to help her mother? And how do we know whether we can afford to have kids now knowing we’ll also have to take care of Jan in the future? I am absolutely unwilling to live paycheck to paycheck and think we shouldn’t have kids for that reason. There are no other family members Jan can rely on, and we know she’ll choose to live with us as opposed to Eric, though we could ask Eric to contribute to our support of Jan. What do you think?
Dear Mother-In-Law Blues,
Coming into a situation where your partner is codependent with their parent is difficult. Adding finances into the mix ups the ante. It sounds like you’ve been rather supportive of Cindy’s relationship with Jan. Heck, you established a boundary by making the mom account, which many people would not have done. But I’m wondering if Cindy took your actions as a sign that you were on board to take care of her mom. Jan will keep being financially irresponsible as long as her children enable her to do so.
Before you combine your finances any further, you need to have a direct conversation with Cindy about what her mother’s care is going to cost your relationship. She may not realize that you don’t feel you’re able to support Jan and have kids. Cindy may be shocked and hurt, but it’s better to have this discussion now than after your wedding date. Be clear about your boundaries and what you are and are not willing to do for Jan, and give Cindy space to think and respond.
If Cindy decides it’s time to set strict financial boundaries with her mother so you guys can move forward with your relationship goals, kudos. Have Cindy schedule some time to let Jan and Eric know that from now on, she will be prioritizing her own family’s future. She doesn’t need to go into all the drama of what a financial succubus her mom is, because that won’t be productive. She can simply say that she has new financial priorities as a couple, and additional requests outside of the mom fund will not be met. Cindy can also point Jan toward her state’s adult services office and encourage her to speak to a financial planner to help her make the most of what she has left in the bank.
If Cindy decides that she cannot set boundaries with Jan, you have a few options. You can say that you’re respectful of her choice but that you expect her to be respectful of yours not to go further with having children. You and Cindy can work with a couples therapist to help you sort through this issue. Or you can decide to part ways. Regardless, it’s going to be a difficult conversation with a hard decision at the end, but it needs to happen before you are legally wed. I wish you and Cindy the best.
Dear Pay Dirt,
What is proper spending etiquette for a couple that has two different levels of financial security? My partner is very comfortable—healthy savings, retirement, owns a home, great credit score, while I am not (renting, little-to-no savings, poor credit). I’m working on bettering my finances—which I destroyed in my 20s—but it’s taking time to rebuild, and I don’t want to be a moocher. This is a newer relationship, and I don’t want a big mess in six to 12 months. How do you decide who pays and where the financial responsibility lies? I’ve never had to talk to someone about that, so I’m not sure how to broach that subject. How do you address shared expenses (like dining out or vacations)? Especially when my partner selects venues that I wouldn’t normally visit.
—Not a Mooch
Dear Not a Mooch,
Finding equal financial footing with a partner, especially when you come from different backgrounds, can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. When entering a new relationship, it’s always important to have those crucial discussions, especially when it comes to finances.
If you haven’t yet, find a time when you and your new boo aren’t distracted or in a rush, and tell them what you told me: that you’re learning more about personal finance and how you can set yourself up for success going forward. You can ask them if they have a favorite budgeting app or other tools for managing their finances. By opening the door on broader financial topic, you can lead into others, like spending etiquette on dates. If you’ve already talked about your financial backgrounds, you can revisit the topic with a specific question or hypothetical: “I’m really excited about trying that fancy restaurant next week, but as you know, I’m working to improve my finances, and I’m a little worried about my budget. But I also don’t want to be a mooch. Could I get drinks if you get dinner, or some other way to split it?” This way it stays light while still learning more about your partner’s preferences. Rinse and repeat for trips, gifts, and other scenarios.
You can also find free or low-cost ways to enjoy each other’s company. If something doesn’t align with your current goals, it’s OK to remind your partner and try to find a compromise. By practicing boundaries and learning how to communicate, you can find a rhythm that works for you and your new relationship.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mom is a widow and in her 70s. Long story short, she didn’t raise me, and we got to know each other after I was 19. I am her only child. She has a sharp mind but lacks in the communication department. She tells me often that I will be the one everything is left to—which is concerning to me, because she hasn’t told me how she plans on making that an easy transfer. I have tried to talk to her to make sure that stuff is done—especially after my dad passed away and I found out what the word probate can actually mean—and would like to avoid as much of that as possible.
She owns her home outright and has a decent pension. I tried to broach the topic after dealing with my dad’s estate. I don’t want to push her, but I just would love to avoid the probate avenue if possible. I am hoping she makes it to 100 but would like the peace of mind that everything is set up and I don’t have to be looking in nooks and crannies to find documents. How do I make sure that my mom has set up her estate without insulting her?
—Walking on Eggshells
It’s pretty common for parents to not want to talk about death with their children. Besides the emotional stress of staring down their own mortality, it is often seen as superstitious. It’s understandable, but many don’t see how this can later affect their family, especially when it comes to distribution of their estate.
If you want to avoid the devil known as probate, ask your mom if she would like to meet with you and an estate lawyer to discuss a living trust. A living trust will help keep her estate out of probate, including all accounts and properties she may owe. (You may also want to discuss a living will, which spells out her wishes for end-of-life care.) Since laws from state to state vary, it’s important to have an attorney assist with the planning process.
If your mom refuses to discuss any matters with you, the book Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk by Cameron Huddleston might be a useful resource. Inspired by her own tough conversations as a caregiver, Huddleston provides tips to help work through these tough conversations and situations. If you still have no luck, you may have to come to terms with the fact you tried your best and that’s all you could control. Good luck.
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Recently, my sister “Janie” told me that she’s thinking of inseminating herself to get pregnant. She’s 38, highly successful in her career, more than financially stable, and has always had the plan to have at least one child. But I doubt Janie would make a good mom. Janie’s lifestyle is not one that would make motherhood easy. She’s also the person who would complain if seated next to a baby on a plane and roll her eyes if a person with small children came into a restaurant. She’s turned down taking family vacations in the past because she feels it’s “backwards” to take a vacation with kids. What is the gentlest way I can tell her that motherhood might not be for her?