Pay Dirt

We Have a Sweet Income Stream, Thanks to My Parents—but It’s Built on a Lie

I think we should come clean. My wife disagrees.

A dilapidated house partially hidden by bushes
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus and Spoon Graphics.

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

Dear Pay Dirt,

About five years ago, my parents decided to go into a senior living community several states away. They couldn’t bear to part with their house, though, and offered it, rent-free, to my wife and myself, if we lived there. We knew we would be looking for our forever home soon and that their house is just a little too small for us to consider moving into for just two or three years. But we told my parents we just weren’t ready to take on the care of the property (it’s rather large). They really didn’t want the house to sit empty, so we decided we would figure out renters and manage the property and split the rent.

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Well, fast forward to the beginning of the pandemic. My wife really had an eye on everything and decided to pounce on a perfect house. We had a very generous down payment saved up because of the rental income we had accrued on my parents’ house. Meanwhile, my parents haven’t traveled since the pandemic started, and they don’t know we bought a house. They think we just decided to rent something because living in an apartment during the pandemic would have been terrible. We had just signed new tenants, so we couldn’t move into their house.

My wife thinks we should just continue to tell them we’re renting our current house, and let them believe we’re still considering moving into their house sometime. The current tenants have been making some small improvements to the property, and she thinks it would be plausible to tell her parents we think the tenants could make the house nice enough to move into in several years. I feel kind of terrible lying by omission to my parents; I feel like the fact that we bought a home is going to come out at some point and that we should just tell them. My wife is worried about them going back on the agreement that we split the rent, if we tell the truth about our intentions. Do you have any advice?

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—A Couple of Pinocchios Over Here

Dear Pinocchio 1 and 2,

Just. Tell Them. The. Damn. Truth.

I get wanting to continue to make money off of the current deal you have, but that doesn’t mean you need to be dishonest, especially about a huge thing like purchasing a home for your family. Do you think your parents are going to get mad that you accomplished a major life goal with the money they’ve been splitting with you? If anything, they’ll probably be ecstatic that you were responsible, and see it as proof they raised you right. If that’s not how they react, then you will still know that you did the right thing by telling them the truth.

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Explain to your parents that you are the owners of the nice new home you told them about, and while you really did consider their offer to move into their beloved house (you can stress that part), you decided to take this opportunity instead. Explain that you’ll still happily help them manage their property, and continue with the current setup you have. If they say no, they can sell it to fund their lifestyle—just like you’ve used it to fund yours.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m 34. I have a MS degree, yet I can’t really work. I need help (or just encouragement?) on getting onto SNAP and disability. I have severe mental health issues, and I pay out of pocket (thanks to my parents) for psychiatry and counseling. Yet the greatest limitation that prevents me from working is sensory processing disorder. Do neurodiverse folks a favor and do a quick Google search. Yes, it DOES affect adults too; no, it’s not officially considered a “real” problem, having been tragically excluded from the latest edition of the “gold standard” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and YET it is a TOTALLY disabling condition for me.

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Due to extreme tactile sensitivities, many days I cannot dress myself (even in gym/lounge-wear), which, um, conflicts with holding a job for obvious reasons! While I continue to search for remote work, I would like to apply for disability benefits because it’s beyond time to lessen the burden on my parents while I work to figure out a way to work!

In addition to the SPD diagnosis, I have anxiety and ADHD (and depression, but that’s in remission, yay!). Are these truly legitimate qualifying conditions? I am currently fully unemployed with quite a few large résumé gaps. I live in the state of Arizona. Do I have any chance of qualifying for disability benefits, and if so, how does one maximize their chances of a good application process? It’s much needed, but even if I qualify, I won’t be content—I WANT to work and even (gasp) have a career(!!!!)—SO BADLY—but those things just aren’t possible now. Not when I can’t dress without panic attacks, and with society so judgmental around the way women dress. I am really smart, driven, and otherwise capable! But my disabilities are keeping me from the workforce. What do I do?

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—Sick of Being on the Sidelines

Dear Sick,

I’m neurodivergent, so while I don’t need to do a Google search on this particular topic, I’ll still share a link so others reading may have an idea of what you may go through daily. The feeling of overwhelm can be crippling, and so hard to work through. It doesn’t mean I can’t get things done; it just means that a task that someone else can complete in five minutes will probably take me a lot longer. I also know that everyone is different, but I wanted to share that with you to sympathize.

I totally get that you’re frustrated with your situation, but I see you going two different ways. On the one hand, you tell me that you have a master’s degree, yet can’t pursue employment opportunities. You say you want to work, but can’t because you can’t work in person. But we’re in year three of a pandemic, and many of us haven’t worked in person in years. I wonder if there are additional barriers here: Are you having a hard time getting interviews for remote positions, maybe?

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Given the difficulty you seem to be having getting your foot in the door, I would first start with talking to your therapist about whether or not you would be a good fit for disability. I believe you are all of the things you say you are; you just need some help putting a plan to prove it in motion. It’s hard to prove a disability without a physical condition. You need to have a paper trail. If your therapist feels you have a strong case, go for it and start documenting. But if they don’t, you can either find a new therapist who can help or initiate a treatment plan that’s specifically aimed at enabling you to build the skills needed to find and keep employment. Good luck to you!

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I am 25 and have about $16,000 in student loans left to pay from my undergrad degree. I am lucky enough to have moved abroad after graduation, and recently switched jobs to a fully remote position, earning about $38,000 in a low-cost-of-living area where I spend about $1,300 a month on all living expenses.

My family wasn’t particularly financially literate, so I feel like I’m kind of stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what I should be doing. I have about three months’ living expenses saved up, spread out over various accounts (banking and keeping cards updated abroad can be a nightmare!). But I have so much anxiety about my financial future, and am constantly stressing about whether I’m making smart choices.

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I have a detailed budget that I pore over a few times a week and I also use a budgeting app, tracking every dollar. My current plan is to pay off my student loans ASAP (putting about $800 a month toward them) and then put about $500 a month toward a Roth IRA retirement fund and anything left over in savings. But I don’t really know if this is smart or if I should be doing something different.

I have combed through your column and the financial advice blogs, but I still feel nervous all the time. Basically, I’m asking for reassurance. Is this an OK plan? Should I be doing something different? I feel like since I’m abroad, I have less of a safety net than some of my peers who might have family or networks close by. I’m grateful to be so far from home, but also I have so much anxiety that if I screw up, I won’t have any help.

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—Flying Solo

Dear Flying Solo,

You are doing remarkably well for only being 25. I love that you’re not only able to cover your living expenses but you’re also able to pay off debt and invest for your future. Most people would dream to be in your very position, at any age. You have my full reassurance! You’re doing great. And remember, even those of us who have family or other support networks nearby cannot necessarily count on them for financial help, so you do what’s right for you. Living abroad may feel a little dangerous, but you can always come home if you want to, and it sounds like you’d be doing so in a great financial position—all the better.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My father and his (childless) brother inherited their father’s lake house in 1962. On my father’s death in 1997, he gave me his half of the house, indicating that he hoped I would share its use with my three sisters but placing no limits on what I chose to do with it. When my father’s brother died, his half of the house was in a trust, which allowed me to buy that half if I wished. I did, and the money I paid for it went to my sisters, along with five other beneficiaries. One sister was adamant that I sell the house at that time, although she and her husband are well off, and hasn’t spoken to me since.

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I have been responsible for upkeep on the house since my father’s death, with little help lately from my sisters or their now-grown children, although they have used it and I have honored my father’s wish that I share its use with them. I have rented it in the summer to pay expenses. It breaks even in large part because my friends and I do the considerable physical labor that is required, as the house is 90 years old and situated on four acres of woods. While they were frequent visitors until I bought my uncle’s half of the house, my sisters no longer visit it, nor do their children.

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Now my sisters say that if I should need to sell it as I get older and am no longer able to continue the physical labor required for its upkeep, they expect me to give them “their part” of the money that represents our dad’s half, or at least leave it to one of their children, claiming that although he gave it to me, he intended it for all of us. (I am single and have no children.)

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I know I have the legal right to keep all the money if I sell it or to give it to one of the friends who have helped me so much, but I’m worried about the ethics and what’s reasonable, given the work I’ve done to maintain it and my sisters’ minimal contribution in the last years. Certainly, it would cause a family break if I kept all the money, but issues related to the house over the last 25 years have caused permanent rifts that I’m not particularly interested in repairing, to be honest. What’s your advice?

—It’s Been Years of Clearing Brush

Dear Brush-Clearer,

The question I pose to you is this: If your family already doesn’t talk to you, why would you pay them money to change their minds?

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Your uncle and father had a fair arrangement, and it sounds like when your father passed, he had a feeling you’d be the one to maintain it. This is probably why he said you could split the proceeds of the cabin if you sold—but you didn’t have to. He left it in your name, and your name alone, for a reason. Your uncle also allowed you to buy his share, so you didn’t have to part with the cabin, and his beneficiaries could still, well, benefit. There is a reason you’ve been able to maintain this connection to your dad. Don’t give it away.

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You can hire help if you want to keep the property arrangement you currently have, or if you want to sell it, the real estate market is hot right now. Whatever you decide to do, don’t leave it to your family, who clearly don’t respect you. Make sure you meet with an estate attorney who can help ensure all of your affairs are in order. And if your family bugs you again, tell them you plan on dying there. Well, maybe don’t go that far—but that will certainly shut them up, that’s for sure!

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—Athena

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