Should my girlfriend and I have her 15 year old sister live with us and we take care of her?
January 25, 2012 5:03 PM   Subscribe

Should my girlfriend (26) of 2 years and I(26) become legal Guardians of her sister (15)? I intend on marrying her but I am not sure if I want to get this involved or intertwined into her family life, maybe not yet. We are in Southern California, if that matters.. just to give you a setting..

I will try to describe the situation and would like advice from individuals with a similar experience or just with life experience on what should be done..

I have found the woman of my dreams and I am now asking myself should I be okay with helping her sister out, or whether her sister really needs help, my help, and should I get involved.

My girlfriend is the oldest of 3 sisters, 26, 21, 15. Her parents separated over a year ago and have been miserable together for about 20 years before. They lost their home in 2008 and other possessions (cars repo'd etc) after her dad was injured at work and disability couldn't cover all of the bills. So times have been tough ever since, now her father has a girlfriend and lives in another city.

Her mom (45) is not working, her 21 year old sister is working, she has a 5 year old child. And her 15 year old sister is kind of forgotten about all the time, she is a shy and quiet and very bright girl.

Now her father is cheating on his girlfriend with his ex-wife and messing around, around the 15 year old sister. Her mom does not work, does not leave the house, does not really do much of anything. She forgets to sign her up for school, send her to class, doesn't really care much about anything.

Her dad (54) was always very proper and very disciplinary, but after his injury he just "doesn't care" about much. He will come over and tries to sleep her mother, but will ignore the 15 year old. She wants to share about school, friends, and projects but is simply ignored at home.

Myself and my Girlfriend are not well off but we are doing okay. I wasn't working for 6 months, I was self-employed and was bleeding so much money that I had to get another job, I am now doing great, and making pretty good money. We live in a little one bedroom so I currently living situation would not work, but we were going to move into a 2 bedroom anyway.

Does she need help? She is going to live, she will probably pick up a lot of her habits from her mom. I think she is going to graduate high school, and then just sit at home with her mom, on welfare and just be..

Things I am worried about:
That having a 15 year old living with us will be a big responsibility.

I don't want to bear all of the financial burden, I feel I am still young and I am not necessarily sure that I should be taking care of other people's children.

I am a big believer in helping family but I don't think her sister is any bodily harm. She probably won't live the same adolescences like my girlfriend did. (they had a nice home etc) And I think that is what makes my girlfriend sad and she wants to help, she wants to help her quality of life.

I am not sure exactly what is going on, this is all second hand and third hand information passed along from my sister's girlfriend, to my sister, to myself... So take it all with a grain of salt, but I would really appreciate someone's insight because I am a little torn.

If it sounds like she really really needs help, then I am okay helping, but adopting a teenager sounds like we might be biting off more than we can chew. Although I think we could teach her to become independent, might get help from the state for Finances, etc..
posted by BigK to Human Relations (23 answers total)
Is there a middle road here? Could the sister sped a few weekends a month with you and maybe part of the summer? Like you said, she's not in danger but I bet she could really benefit by being around a stable couple who could give her some attention.
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:07 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I doubt you'd get money from the state for sister's care unless she entered the foster care system, which is not something you want to happen. If things are that desperate, it'd be far better just to let her move into your house. Does she want to do that? If she doesn't want it, then you shouldn't force the issue. There are a lot of things you all can do for Sis without informally adopting her. You can have her over regularly for dinner, you can take her to visit colleges and help her with the SAT & applications, you can have her visit for a few weeks during the summer.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:10 PM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Things I am worried about: That having a 15 year old living with us will be a big responsibility.

It will be. Huge, in fact.

Look, it is crappy that she is in a crappy situation - but I think there are lots of other ways you could help her without going the full 'become legal guardian route.'

IANAL, but I don't think you can just become her legal guardians so easily. What do her parents want? Will they fight it? Going that route could result in a lot of legal hassle, expenses, and could put her through a bunch of stuff she doesn't want to go through.

And that brings me to my main point: What does she want? Have you talked to her at all about it?

I would suggest that spending some time with her, just hanging out with her and getting her out of the house, making sure she registers for school, that kind of stuff comes first.

15 is not 3. That may sound harsh, but it doesn't sound like her life is in danger. Look for other ways to help without trying to become her parents, is my advice.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:10 PM on January 25, 2012

Couldn't she spend every weekend with you guys or something?

What does the 15-year old want? She's old enough to make a choice about all of this, also.
posted by devymetal at 5:18 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

What about the middle sister? Could your girlfriend (and you) and the sister maybe split spending more time with her, getting her out the house, and all that? There are ways you can improve her quality of life, if she so desires - what does she want?

Because fact is, taking over legal guardianship is a huge responsibility and not an easy process for anyone involved; and you don't know how her parents are going to feel about it - it might even hurt the youngest one more to have a lot of turmoil and drama going on. Some caseworkers, etc., are also not going to be terribly motivated to give legal guardianship of a 15-year-old to a 26-year-old.
posted by sm1tten at 5:22 PM on January 25, 2012

Does she even want to move out? She's old enough that this wouldn't work if she wasn't on board.

But if she does want to leave her home, it sounds like you would be doing this girl a tremendous kindness if you took her in. Which isn't to say it's wrong to feel ambivalent--it IS a big commitment, especially for someone your age.

But consider: she's old enough to be left alone while you go out on a Saturday night, she's almost old enough to have an after-school job, it's only three years of your life, and you'll only be 29 or 30 by the time she graduates from high school. Teenagers are tough, but compared to having a baby, say, this is way less commitment.

If you feel this is the right thing to do, then you should do it, even if you are nervous/unsure about it. Feeling nervous is separate from knowing what's right. Or rather: being nervous and uncertain is not necessarily a sign that you SHOULDN'T do it.

However, if you really feel you can't take it on, then don't: You would be doing this girl a disservice if you changed your mind and had to send her back home. Get involved in other ways.
posted by elizeh at 5:26 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Let your girlfriend decide what to do. Your role is to support your girlfriend in her decisions: she knows her parents, she knows the situation, she knows her sister. The 15 year old needs a role model and a stable home in order to thrive.
Will it be easy? Absolutely not. Will it be worthwhile? I suspect that caring for her younger sister will be a milestone in your girlfriend life.
posted by francesca too at 5:35 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

What does your girlfriend want to do? Who is suggesting this option? How long has it been discussed? How far apart do you and your girlfriend live from the rest of the family? Would she have to change schools? Does she want to? And, the above question, what does the sister want?

My sister moved out of my parents' house when she was 14 (though for very different reasons), so I have some perspective on how this works. She went to live with my aunt, and they went through the whole legal guardian thing. I was 21 when this occurred so I remember it clearly and have input to offer, but more information would be needed first.
posted by questionsandanchors at 5:35 PM on January 25, 2012

I'm not sure what to suggest about a lot of this, but I would definitely advise against you taking the role of legal guardian here. From a legal perspective there is no need for two, and your girlfriend is the obvious choice there.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:44 PM on January 25, 2012

I don't understand why you have to become the legal guardian. This should be your girlfriends decision - let her become the legal guardian if she feels like it.

You can never predict what happens in relationships, especially with an additional teenager involved. Let her decide what she wants to do, and support her either way. I don't understand why she can't become the legal guardian and you still date her, much like moms with kids still have boyfriends.
posted by unexpected at 6:00 PM on January 25, 2012

Does your girlfriend work? Is there a chance her parents would be willing to give her money to help support the minor?

Because a) that's where all the not-your-money going to come from (not from the state, for sure) and b) that will really reduce your problems to being a source of friendship/support and occasional amusement for an impressionable roommate. It will probably take something like $300 a month to give her food, clothes, and cover the extra utilities - upwards of a few thousand a year for school depending on where you are, what activities she's in, whether there's a bus fee, etc. Anyway, chances are the dad is providing some level of financial support here anyway - if it's not mandated through children's services (it might be, depending on where the divorce was finalized) or through a court order, he may be OK with diverting it to your girlfriend.

And yeah, you need to know what the girl's opinion here is. And yeah, you are basically not really involved here - you're not going to be her father, you're her not-that-much-older-sister's boyfriend. Big, big difference.

Bottom line: this really doesn't have to be your problem, even if she does come to live in your home. Relax, talk things out like an adult, figure out what people actually expect from you (by asking them, not assuming,) and it'll work out fine.

(I like the weekend thing. Or she could come over after school sometimes and spend the night, when things are just too much. Lots of teenagers in difficult situations do that.)
posted by SMPA at 6:05 PM on January 25, 2012

If the kid comes to live with you and the parents don't give any money your girlfriend can claim her on her taxes. I think your worries about the girl ending up sitting at home on welfare show some lack of faith in her abilities and goals. Is that what she says she wants to do, or does she talk about college, careers, etc.?

If your girlfriend feels that this is the best way to help her sister then you need to be supportive or get out of the relationship. Boyfriends are a lot easier to replace than sisters.
posted by mareli at 6:52 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you considered just letting her live with you (and not becoming the legal guardian)?

Once you start to get the law involved in this and begin to make permanent legal arrangements it is very hard to turn back if things don't work out, you would be stuck.

If it is generally OK with her and the mother, I don't see why she can't just move in with you. This way at least if the absolute worst happened and you broke up with your girlfriend you wouldn't be financially responsible for your ex's sisters care and decisions.

Don't balk at this, most people that end up single were sure that their relationship would last forever. You NEED to think about how you would handle the sister if a breakup were to occur before you make any permanent decisions.
posted by Shouraku at 6:54 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

if there's any possibility at all that you will compromise yourself with the 15 year old -- for any reason at all, then don't do it.

if you are intent on marrying your girlfriend, this situation is something you should be able to discuss directly. you can't be married to her and not be intertwined with her family. you need to be able to discuss issues directly with your gf, without all the intermediaries.

you don't seem very enthusiastic about helping the 15 year old; your attitude is very "it is what is is".

i don't think you really have your heart in it.
posted by elle.jeezy at 7:02 PM on January 25, 2012

Do they live near you? Can girlfriend get more involved in sister's life without becoming the legal guardian?

I took on the assumed guardianship of an older teenager. It was incredibly difficult. I wouldn't recommend people taking the decision lightly.
posted by k8t at 7:26 PM on January 25, 2012

Absolutely don't do this. You are 26, you would never normally have a child who was 15. It's not your responsibility, you're not equipped for it. It is NOT your job to fix somebody else who was broken, or may be in the process of being broken, by their upbringing. You can't do it, you shouldn't try to. Your responsibility to yourself comes before that and you almost certainly will hurt your own development and your relationship with your girlfriend by taking on guardianship here.

That said, yes do look for ways to support the sister without taking on full responsibility. Do what you can do without harming yourself and your primary relationship.
posted by parrot_person at 7:57 PM on January 25, 2012

Your gf may be eligible for a TANF child-only grant-probably not a lot of money, varies state to state, but can be a couple hundred bucks a month plus medical. Your local TANF (welfare) office can give you more info.
posted by purenitrous at 8:14 PM on January 25, 2012

I doubt you'd get money from the state for sister's care unless she entered the foster care system, which is not something you want to happen.

See if your state has a kinship care system or something similar. It's essentially a foster-care diversion program where a family member steps up.

The state will want to collect from the biological parents, though.

(My parents used this to raise my brother's kids from his first, abandoned marriage. It wasn't a lot -- full foster care or adoption support are magnanimous by comparison -- but it helped.)
posted by dhartung at 1:13 AM on January 26, 2012

Talking about becoming a legal guardian is putting the cart before the horse. Depending on your local laws, you likely don't have standing to even attempt it right now.

Focus instead on what it would be like to have her with you guys full- or part-time. Maybe y'all can work with Mom to see about providing some more structured support for her. No need to start a legal battle before you've done your research and legwork.
posted by freshwater at 5:56 AM on January 26, 2012

There are a lot of ways you could help without going full blown legal custody. Why don't you have her come over on weekends to stay, wouldn't even have to be every weekend. Take her out places, show her the world the life she could have off of welfare, and I don't mean spend lots of money on her, just expand her world view a little. Take her out to Dinner during the week and talk to her, and more importantly listen to her, yes I know 15 yo girls are not the most stimulating conversationalists, but she needs people to listen to her and make her feel validated, so listen. You can be involved in her life in a lot of ways that will help her without going the full out guardian route.

Annecdotally, my mother says her sister was the only reason she was able to get out of her poor as dirt life she had growing up. Her sister was 10 years older and had a good job, so her and boyfriend (later husband) would take her with them all over England, to the movies, to visit stately homes, to eat in nice restaurants etc and encouraged her not to "settle", you could do the same.
posted by wwax at 8:07 AM on January 26, 2012

What would there be to gain for you? Let your girlfriend do it, and support the sister as if she were your legal child. But she won't be your legal child. I don't see how the pros of the situation wouldn't weight out the cons.
posted by jjmoney at 10:40 AM on January 26, 2012

If the 15 yo wants it, I think you should take her in part-time and not do anything about legal guardianship in case things don't work out the way you all plan.

I think it is more important for you and gf to have her during the week than on the weekends--the opposite of what people above are suggesting. It's more valuable to show her what a functional working adult household looks like, which you can provide, and it's also more valuable that you make sure she gets to school every day and does her homework.

Let her do what she wants on the weekends (with you or home with Mom or whatever). She's a teenager and while I am sure she loves her sister and likes hanging out with family, she might resent having to spend part of the time which is dedicated to "relaxation" and friends with an obligation.

Weekday living is what she needs to see and what you can provide stability for more than her mother can.

If it works out after a few months, then your gf can look into legal options for guardianship and getting $.
You shouldn't get involved legally or be part of the adoption until you are legally partnered with your gf in the eyes of the government (either registered as domestic partners, civil union, married, etc). It's just asking for trouble and it isn't your responsibility. You will still definitely feel and be responsible for her in some respects if she is living with you, but it shouldn't be legally on your head.
posted by rmless at 10:43 AM on January 26, 2012

When I was 22, I was faced with the choice to become legal guardian of my then-16 year old sister (who was by all accounts not well behaved) while completing a degree and with no source of income (let alone two!). I opted with having her live with family friends until she finished her high school education because it was just not going to work for us.

That said, I'd encourage you to consider it. If she is well behaved as you seem to think, if your girlfriend wants her there, if (most importantly of all) SHE wants to be there. Even if you don't legally take her in, you could offer her safe haven occasionally (on weekends, weekdays) just to give her somewhere to go. This alone might help her a LOT with regards to having a non-terrible teenage experience.
posted by buteo at 7:18 PM on January 26, 2012

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