Mother-in-law sticking us with the tab

Dear Toni--

My spouse and I have been married for 28 years, have four children, one with special needs--and we have always been frugal with money and conscientious about saving for college educations and retirement. We realize this was our choice and we don't complain about the demands, nor have we ever asked for financial or other assistance.

We are now at a stage where our children have all just about reached adulthood. We have put one through college and are currently paying the costs for another. Our youngest will graduate from high school in a year and then will need continued support for her education. All this, our jobs and handling all of the care for our home ourselves is about all we feel we can possibly manage. However, now we are being expected to take on more.

My father-in-law recently passed away and as he was dying, it became clear that my in-laws had done no retirement planning or budgeting, and were running out of funds quickly. They had spent money freely over the years, always having a housekeeper, yearly vacations, foreign travel, subscriptions to the arts and other "luxuries." A few years ago they could no longer afford their house after getting a reverse mortgage and burning quickly through the cash. So, their sons had to work on getting their home sold and moving them into an apartment, shortly after which, my father-in-law was unable to live at home anymore.

Now my mother-in-law can no longer qualify for the apartment she wants to downsize to. We have been asked to co-sign, which we have always said we would never do. My spouse's brother is more than willing to put up funds, but they are in business for themselves and cannot be guarantors at this time, which leaves only us. When my husband expressed his concerns to his mom, she became very upset and told him she has a ledger with all the money written down that she has given him/spent on him over the years. She said they gave us ,000 towards our first home, which is a fantasy. My husband left home at 17 and put himself through college. We have never asked for or received any financial or other assistance from them.

We are between a rock and a hard place. His mother needs the help and we are the only ones that can give it, but it puts us on the hook going forward for her rent and eventually there will be greater expenses when she can no longer live unassisted. This all seems grossly unfair and the stress is causing my spouse who had heart surgery a few years ago to experience worrying symptoms. Part of me wants to just cut her off, but I know that is not the right thing to do. I'd appreciate any thoughts, suggestions or ideas you may have.
--Sandwich generation Sufferer

Dear Sandwich Generation Sufferer,

Unfortunately you are far from alone. Let's face it, there is nothing fair about this situation, and it doesn't help that your MIL is behaving in a very selfish and entitled manner. It's OK to have all the feelings you are having, just make sure you process them with your spouse and any trusted family and friends in order to help keep your balance and even your sense of humor as you work on setting terms and limits you and your spouse can live with. These will be the key to finding the solution you seek and helping you keep the relationship with your MIL intact--so repeat them as often as necessary, terms and limits, terms and limits.

Your terms will be what you can live with--the bottom line on what you are willing to do/spend to make up for the deficits left in the wake of your in-law's irresponsibility. If you agree to co-sign, what are your time and money limits on this lease? Since you will be dealing with listing agents, you will have to work within their contract or ask for flexibility, so that will be the first thing you should address. If you discover that you have no wiggle room with the contract and it asks you to take on more than you are comfortable with, your mother-in-law may need to consider less expensive apartments and/or other living options. After all, if you are going to end up paying for her living expenses, you need to have a say in what she is spending.

That brings me to the next point which is how much input and control you will be given if/when you are essentially on the hook for expenses. The best way to address this is to sit down with your mother-in-law and other involved family members and put together a budget. All of her monthly expenses need to be included along with a listing of all her monthly income. It sounds likely that her monthly expenses are exceeding her income, in which case it will be necessary to go through them and look at what can be cut back or gotten rid of altogether. Expect push back and some anger, but hold your ground. If your MIL is resistant to working with you on this, you have the lease signing for leverage. You won't sign anything you have no input into or any control over, period.

Gong forward, you should have a system in place whereby any financial decisions are made jointly, by all close family who will be providing support. Her finances will need to be monitored regularly and it would be a good idea if one family member can take over paying her bills and handling the overall budget. They can report back to the others and if money is running out, you can all discuss what needs to happen to balance the budget--or if her resources are drying up, you can discuss alternate living and care arrangements that are more cost effective for you and can utilize any monies that are available to seniors who lack adequate resources.

This is your spouse's mother, so it's likely that walking away is not an option he would even want to consider. However, you and he need to come to an agreement among yourselves first, then firmly (and with love?) present your terms and limits to your MIL and other in-laws. There is no easy or perfect solution and you can't turn back the clock and change the way your in-laws mismanaged their responsibilities and finances. You can only move forward in a way that you can live with and that won't leave you without the resources you will need when that time comes. Otherwise you might end up asking your children to pick up the tab.

(from May 2015)

Want to read other columns on this subject?

"Mother-In-Law Blues"
List of more
"In-law Challenges"

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Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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