Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My fiancé and I have three homes between us: my town house, his late mother’s bungalow, and his condo. I moved in with him late last year. We rent out the town house and the bungalow, since the mortgages are paid off. After we were furloughed, rent has made up the majority of our income.
My fiancé has two middle school–age children with his ex. She quit her job during COVID to take care of their virtual schooling. He paid all their expenses. The girls have been back at school since August, but their mother is no closer to finding the “right” job, despite everywhere you see job signs. She used to be a grocery manager, but refuses to go back or seek other full-time employment. I have tried to be hands-off, but I am tired of the money drain. This arrangement isn’t in the custody agreement at all.
My town house has been vacant since my last renter moved, and the bungalow will be vacant in a month. Meanwhile, the ex’s rent is going up. A lot. She expects us to continue to pay, and we haven’t been able to save a penny for the wedding. I dug my heels in. This wasn’t right or fair, I said to them. She was not disabled or sick and could easily find real work. The kids could move in with us—either the condo or town house. Their mother could get an efficiency.
Meanwhile, my fiancé thinks a good compromise would be not to “pressure” his ex about employment. Rather, let her and the girls move into the bungalow, and use the income from my town house to cover their lowered rent. He is a good man and wants to put his girls first. It is why I fell in love with him. But because of that, he also doesn’t want to rock the boat with his ex.
And I’m thinking this whole situation might be a sinking ship. My town house is still empty. Would it be petty and cruel of me to move out, go back to my town house, and tell my fiancé to figure out his priorities? My fiancé would probably be able to pay for both the condo and bungalow without my contribution if a major emergency doesn’t happen. I love him, I get along great with the kids, and I don’t think I am being heartless here. But if I carry through with this ultimatum, and some emergency does come about, I might screw them all over. What should I do?
Dear Money Pit,
This is a great time for your fiancé to figure out shit with his ex. And you’re unfortunately right. That may include you removing yourself, temporarily, from the situation. But while you’re removing yourself, you may want to reconsider what you really want and if you want to be involved in taking care of your fiancé’s family and, eventually, marrying into it.
I am not saying it is right, AT ALL, that you guys have been footing the bill since his ex quit her job. But during the pandemic, a lot of parents, like your fiancé and his ex, had to make the hard choice to either find alternative arrangements or leave the workplace indefinitely to help with virtual schooling. That was an emergency situation, and faced with it, your fiancé did the right thing. He took her expenses on because he wanted to ensure his kids had a roof over their heads and someone to help them learn. No one ever wants their kids to go without, and sometimes that includes making arrangements that may tangentially benefit the other parent, like paying their bills.
Even if school is now back in your area, it does strike me that some parents of school-age kids are still worried that staffing shortages, exposures, sickness, or a new variant may land them back in a nightmare child care dilemma. However, if she is going to stay out of work so that she is available in that eventuality, that should be a mutual decision that your fiancé approves, since it affects his pocketbook.
This is the fundamental thing. There are going to be situations, like this pandemic, that may have him covering their mother’s living expenses later on down the line, so his children do not go without. It’s nice that you are OK with them moving in with you two full time while she figures stuff out, but that is a temporary fix. She’s their mother, and although you haven’t outlined the specifics of their custody arrangements, presumably she has the right to be with her children. And you can’t go live in your town house every time she needs financial help.
I say take a time out and move back into your town house now. Let your fiancé figure things out with his ex, including a living situation that may include them moving back in together, so his kids are taken care of and their mom can figure her life out. You are only responsible for financially supporting yourself and making sure all of your needs are covered, not theirs. Maybe the new need for income will light a fire under the two of them. You aren’t married yet, so this isn’t your drama to continue to face. But they are a package deal, for better or for worse, so take your time figuring out if this is something you want to be a part of, or if it would be better for you both to move on.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My younger brother passed suddenly just over a year ago, with no dependents or will. My younger sister lived nearby and took over as executor. She spent a lot of money on his condo to get it ready for sale, and also took care of his debts. But now she is asking my youngest sister and I to sign over our portion of the life insurance and to sign documents releasing our interest in his estate. She has not disclosed what the total value is.
Her reasoning at first was that she wanted to make sure she recouped all her costs on the condo and on settling the estate. But recently, she said it was because he had no relationship with us. He had stopped speaking to my father, younger sister, and myself several years ago, with no explanation. Attempts to remedy this were refuted. He wouldn’t even tell her why he wouldn’t speak to us.
Given how messy this has gotten, and how little information I have about so many aspects of this situation, do I just sign everything over? Or should I fight this?
—Should I Let My Sister Take the Money and Run?
Dear Take The Money,
This is a very tricky emotional situation. You say you’ve had no relationship with your brother for the past few years, and you’ve tried to remedy it, but he just did not want you to be a part of his life. You haven’t talked to him in years, yet, because of the fact that he died unexpectedly and without a will, you might still benefit from his estate. There is also, I’m sure, an overwhelming amount of grief because his death was a surprise, and he died before you could fix things between you or even begin to understand why he was cold to you in recent times. That grief, and all of those complex feelings, may overshadow any choice about the estate that you could rationally make.
I would hire a mediator before going any further. A mediator will look at the facts on hand, including how much money your sister has put into fixing up his condo and handling other parts of his estate. As an outside opinion, they will also listen to both sides of the story and come to what they think is a fair conclusion to the issue at hand. If you are still not seeing eye to eye after mediation, you can then seek an estate attorney to help you navigate this further.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My son Darrell, 16, is an avid fencer. A few years back, his coach introduced Darrell to his own coach, a now very old former Olympian I’ll call “Ed.” Darrell and Ed hit it off very well, and we even became friends of Ed’s family.
Unfortunately, Ed is quite elderly and in failing health and apparently doesn’t think he’ll live to see the geese fly north next year. He’s made some changes to his will, which include leaving an antique 17th century rapier to Darrell, as well as some paraphernalia to keep it cared for.
I don’t like it. I’ve spoken my concerns to Ed, who at first seemed to think I was asking if it was a genuine antique, but when I told him my real concerns were whether it could be used as a weapon, he quite enthusiastically said that you could stab through a mail shirt or probably even a car door with this thing. But also that you should never do that because it might damage the blade. This was less than reassuring.
I trust Darrell. He’s a well-adjusted kid and I could never believe he’d go on some kind of rampage, but I do not think a teenager should own a deadly weapon. That leads to two questions. Short of getting Ed to change his will again, is there any way I can hold this blade in trust for Darrell, so he can’t get it until he’s a bit older, maybe once he’s graduated college? And from what I understand, the sword itself is worth around $4,000 to $5,000. I do live in a state with inheritance taxes, so is there anything I can do to help with the possible tax burden of the sword?
—I Pledge My Sword
Good news! You can set up a revocable living trust to put the “asset” into safekeeping for a later date. Revocable trusts are great because not only can you put financial items into one, such as cash or investment accounts, but you can also put family heirlooms, business interests, and even real estate into them. Laws and loopholes are contingent by state, so don’t fall victim to a DIY error; hire a professional instead. An estate attorney can also help you with the inheritance tax question. Under 2021 tax year rules, the first $15,000 of a gift’s value was tax-free.
Dear Pay Dirt,
Through a terrible relationship decision, I racked up nearly $40,000 in debt that I started paying down in 2019. I’m down to the final bit of the last personal loan, and I’m on track to pay it off in January (about 1.5 years earlier than the term of the loan).
My grandma, who hasn’t had a credit card or loan ever in her life, called me up to give me some advice. She said that since I’ve been a good customer (paying on time, paying extra), if I call and ask the loan company, they should waive my final payment.
Is this really a thing, or is my grandma remembering something they did in the 1950s? Is it worth my time to make the phone call and wade through all of the menus and rigamarole? Or should I just tell my grandma that I called and they don’t do that anymore?
Wherever she heard this tidbit, Grandma is definitely onto something. While not all of your creditors will allow you to negotiate your payoff amount, a lot of debt collectors will work with you. I used this method quite a lot when I was paying off medical bills from my cancer treatment. If creditors can see that you have paid quite a bit and are close to the finish line, they may be willing to bend a little.
Call your creditor and ask about negotiating the payoff amount. They may not forgive the total amount, but they may agree to take a smaller sum. You can also negotiate interest rates, so check to see if you can shave off a few additional dollars.
Also, kudos for being (almost) debt-free! Tastes good, don’t it?
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