Personal Finance

Meg Green: Freeloading brother-in-law is rocking the boat

The dilemma: My wife’s mother, 84 and single after a couple of divorces, moved into our home after she had surgery so my wife could help her get back on her feet. That was last summer.

Although she could easily go home, completely recovered, her one-bedroom apartment is being occupied by her son, my wife’s brother, who needed a quick place to land when he left his marriage after Thanksgiving. He’s completely moved in now, and has gotten comfortable there, and my mother-in-law is comfortable here. They seem to think this is working. I have had it.

We pay all expenses here, while she pays for her apartment and gives her son spending money. We think he has her credit card. He comes here to watch movies with her a couple of afternoons a week and helps himself to our food and drinks, too. Her friends and social life are around her apartment, so sometimes he drives the 40 minutes to take her to something, but he is taking advantage of us all. He doesn’t want to work in advance of the divorce proceedings, and has my mother-in-law convinced this is OK.

My wife thinks we should just close our mouths and not upset Mom. Her parents had helped us with our down payment 20 years ago and she feels we owe her. Is she right?

I can't imagine living like this for much longer, but he has no need to move so why would he? We have travel and retirement plans that can’t happen with this arrangement, and we’re not as flush as they obviously think.

Meg’s solution: The elephant in your room is going to suffocate you all, if the fuse doesn’t blow first.

If Mom needed care and this was the best way, then so be it. You’d find a way to make it work. But that’s not the case. This is all about your brother-in-law, and that’s not right. Nor should it be your problem, but unfortunately it’s yours to solve.

There’s a reasonable shot that your mother would really like to go back to her home, her friends and her life, but doesn’t want to throw her son out. Maybe she too needs to be “saved” and doesn't know where to go with this.

The place to begin is calmly but seriously helping your wife see how you perceive things. Because her brother chooses to duck responsibility to his family and not work, her mother has to pay the price of being relocated for his convenience. Not to mention the unnecessary burden on you both. How fair is that? She needs to realize that Mom will thrive better in her own environment. It’s not about the expense, it’s the circumstance. Talk to her with this point of view. Get counseling if you need to get the point across. But get to the facts and figure out what’s best for all, including you, as smoothly as you can.

In order to stop the game of musical chairs, a family solution must be offered to your brother. He's obviously clueless … or worse, quite aware but selfish. If the problem is laziness and not financial, then your mother, with your support, must give him a reasonable time to find a place and move. Three weeks, or until the end of the month should do it.

If the problem is financial, then may I suggest you “buy” yourselves out of this, unfair as it may seem. Consider it an investment in your marriage — and sanity.

If he’s in need of first and last month’s security, agree to help Mom help him if she needs it. Offer to help them find some therapy to work this out so Mom doesn’t feel guilty taking back her bed. And if he cannot pay his way after that offer, or chooses not to, then he needs to couch surf until he figures out how to support himself. He can begin on Mom’s couch, if she wishes.

Now the problem would be back where it belongs. It’s not too late for tough love, but Mom may need your help. And again, she may like having his company. So be it, in her home.

Start the dominoes as soon as you can. You may be the savior to all. Otherwise, you’ll need to find a way to get used to the status quo, and that’s not pretty.

Got a dilemma? Email Meg Green, CFP, is a wealth manager with offices in Aventura. Her Money Dilemmas column runs monthly in the Miami Herald.