Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
After my ex-husband’s death due to alcoholism, many people donated to our son’s future college fund. He was in elementary school at this time. Over the years, the communication and relationship with my ex’s family has become completely nonexistent. I have been to blame for all of their son’s addictions and mental health issues. (He had all of them prior to our marriage.) On the positive side, our son has grown into a wonderful, healthy, stable young man.
My ex’s family was in charge of the college fund. When it was time to decide on where our son was to attend college, I found out that the fund was gone.
I have never been told what happened to the money, but I have heard many stories and rumors about where it really went. I feel sorry for the people who donated with good intentions. An attorney could not get any information from the bank where it was in an account at one time. Our son is now an adult and has wiped his hands of “those people who don’t exist.” I just want some closure with answers on how a person could steal from their grandchild. Should I keep trying to find out what happened to that money? Or should I just close that door forever?
—Disappointed Momma Bear
Dear Disappointed Momma Bear,
I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your son’s father and this subsequent heartbreak. Props to you for raising a well-adjusted young man despite it all.
You don’t say more about how specifically the money was raised or how you found out it’s gone, so it’s hard to say what recourses you might have. Do you know what type of college savings account they had opened for your son? In certain situations, it may be unethical but not illegal for your child’s grandparents to have liquidated the account for their own personal gain. A 529 is the common savings account of choice for a child going into higher education, but if they were the account holders, they could have dissolved it and paid the penalty. If they opened a different kind of account, that presents other possibilities. A forensic accountant could also be another option for you and your attorney to pursue.
I think hiring an attorney was the correct step to find closure. You may never find answers for why they did this to their own grandchild, but legal action is always a close second.
Dear Pay Dirt,
For decades, it has been common family knowledge that I was to inherit the mountain home that my father and I loved dearly. It is a priceless gift of land and air and trees and leaves and birds and valleys and stars. However, it is titled (in North Carolina) in both my father’s and mother’s names. My mother—who hated the house, my father, their life, and the relationship between my father and myself—is selling the house. It feels like the ultimate act of spite and disrespect of my father. My mother, in the same fashion, took for herself half of the proceeds of a very valuable and similarly titled (in Texas) commercial building, which Dad also indicated in his will should be placed in the trust in its entirety.
Should I pursue these actions with another attorney or accept that my father just wasn’t good at ensuring his properties could actually be distributed according to his vision? I have ended the relationship with my mother, but I am afraid she will disinherit me; she frequently threatens to make me do what she wants. If she disinherits me, her only child, I can’t make it up to my half-siblings. It’s breaking my heart that Dad knew he had to create trusts to protect his assets from my mother to ensure his children received their inheritances, but she and her attorney are using legalities instead of honoring his wishes. My mother is cheating my half-siblings out of several million dollars.
I apologize for the loss of your father and I am sorry the transition of his assets after passing has not been as smooth as you had hoped. Yes, I suggest your first step is to obtain legal representation with an attorney that specializes in real estate litigation. The attorney can help you better navigate the situation you have described above, especially since a few of the key points you made above do not line up for an easy transition. An attorney can secure copies of important forms, work with executor of both a trust and/or will, and will be experienced with different laws that pertain to each state a property is owned.
Your attorney can also decide what your next steps should be and can file the appropriate motions on your behalf. If you are not listed as any beneficiary on any of the paperwork, you are in for a long uphill fight. I know that’s not the answer you are looking for, but I want to be realistic with you.
I’m also confused as to how your half siblings are connected to you being disinherited by your mom. If your father did not include them in his estate planning, I’ll agree that is extremely unfortunate and poor planning on his part. But this is not a reason to resume a toxic relationship with your mother that you’ve already ended. Trying to ensure your mother’s estate can be split among your half siblings once she has passed is not for you to decide. Talking to a therapist about this issue can help relieve the guilt you are feeling. A therapist can also help you stick to healthy boundaries while you further navigate this legal landscape.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have in my possession some family heirlooms. My brother is saying that he should be given some of them, even though he has already been given quite a few. He has a child that may or may not be his, whom he has nothing to do with. He wants to pass them down to his second wife’s grandchildren. I have children of my own. I also currently have eight grandchildren. All of mine are direct family links. In giving him everything he wants, it would not leave much to pass down to my own. I have always been told to pass the heirlooms down to family members. Am I wrong in not wanting to give more to my brother?
Dear Family Only,
My parents would always pawn our family jewelry, and when my mom died, my aunt took over the payments with the understanding that I would inherit the heirlooms. Well, she died last year, so God only knows where they are. It’s because of this that I am a firm believer that only direct family gets heirlooms, because they can lose meaning and provenance quickly. It’s not your fault your brother mishandled what heirlooms he did have in his possession. It’s actually pretty ballsy he asked for more to give to his second wife’s grandkids. Stand your ground and don’t give him anything else.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m 29 and impatient to leave the mostly tolerable career in office administration I stumbled into, and I want to get my master’s and become a clinical social worker. I’m confident that I’ll thrive in the profession and find the work deeply meaningful. What I’m less confident about is paying for my degree. For a couple years, I’ve deluded myself with a fantasy of paying for much of my graduate degree upfront—and also felt terror of how huge student loan payments could limit my choices for the next couple decades of my life after graduation. (I currently have no student loan debt or consumer debt.)
To my embarrassment, after managing to save up $22,000, I’m just now finally recognizing that this fantasy is, well, a fantasy. I live very frugally already (but in a high-cost-of-living area), and I don’t have the salary, wealthy family, or side-hustle capacity to pull together the full $100,000 that I estimate I’ll need for tuition and living expenses, at least not in the couple of years longer I estimate I can keep tolerating doing work I’m good at but that doesn’t matter to or much interest me.
The problem is that my fantasy of paying for everything out of pocket has kept me from figuring out how much I really need to save before I can responsibly start applying to programs. Where do I start? I get easily overwhelmed by long-term strategic financial planning for my own sake and tend to shut down and disengage because of anxiety about it. I’ve never even had a budget—I’ve just built as inexpensive a life I can bear, and that’s usually been enough to ensure I can cover all my expenses and save money on top. Is there a good rule of thumb for how much debt it’s OK to take on? How do I estimate how much money I’ll actually need? How do I figure out the point at which my future loan payments would be a nuisance versus onerous-but-doable versus life-stunting?
—Overwhelmed by Future Debt
You have NOTHING to be embarrassed about. You are so ahead of the game when it comes to saving for graduate school, trying out a career path and then saving aggressively while living in a high cost of living. Graduate programs can be costly, especially given the returns, so you are correct being weary of student loan debt. But financing your graduate degree isn’t as out of reach as you may think.
First, make a list of at least everything you are looking for in a degree and school. You know already that you want to be a clinical social worker, so a program with a higher-than-average job placement rate may be more important than a school with great internships. After you make your list of criteria, find at least 10 programs that would potentially be a great fit, then start looking at financing options for those programs. Student loans don’t have to be the only answer to funding a graduate degree. Filling your Free Application for Federal Student Aid will enable you to apply for student loans but will also allow you to see about potential grant opportunities, scholarships that are income-based, and work-study programs. Along with grants and work study programs, many graduate schools offer a fellowship program or an employee discount if you decide to continue your career there while attending class. ProFellow has an extensive database of social work fellowships across the U.S.
As a graduate student, you can borrow up to $20,500 in Direct Unsubsidized Loans per year you are enrolled in your program, with most programs being two years if you are a full-time student. Most social workers also go into public service, which allows you to apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program later on down the line when your loans enter repayment. I would not borrow outside of what the U.S Department of Ed allows you to take out. $40,000 can be doable on the salary of a social worker in a clinical setting, which averages to be roughly $72,809 per year.
More Pay Dirt
I have a friend who’s always been a little cheap with shared checks. If I throw my card down for ease and let people Venmo me, he’ll pay me, like, a conservative estimate of his portion (often short of the real total) and also not take tax or tip into account. I always kind of forget about this until he does it again. A few months ago, he estimated $25 when he owed me $40, and I was like, “Bro,” and he seemed perplexed and gave me the $40. I tell you all this because on our last hangout, it was just us, and through other conversation about COVID and his current joblessness, he reluctantly revealed a fairly stunning detail about his financial situation.