How do we approach financially supporting a parent?
July 6, 2016 8:13 AM   Subscribe

My husband's parents are divorcing and they are in their 60s. His mother has had ill health over the last 20 years and some mental health issues. The divorce has sent their finances into some disarray but they have not been open with us about the particulars. Now his mother is starting to ask for financial help – small things like splitting airfare for her to come visit. But she's also apparently enlisted his sister to buy presents on her behalf for the kids/extended family and then sent checks that bounce. My husband is very anxious about needing to financially support his mother but I don't like this gradual slide into support especially since we do not have a lot of extra money.

I'm an "ask" kind of person and his family tends to be "guess" or, most commonly, "don't talk about it at all." I think we could easily gradually slide into financially supporting one or both of his parents without any idea of how much money they have or what their assets or plans are. We are not maxing out our own retirement savings as of yet, and we have a small child at home. We don't have our own affairs in order so I think it's a terrible idea to take on someone else's undefined affairs.

Even splitting airfare is frustrating because while she would like to visit, we actually would rather she not. She likes to come out and stay for weeks at a time and she can't drive and we end up eating out constantly because of her food issues and it's very stressful. On the flip side, what kind of heartless jerks are we to not spend money on the parents? The kind of jerks who can't afford to fly anywhere ourselves, for one.

I don't like so many things about their situation but I also really fear getting into this without a big picture understanding of what's going on. She's living alone in a large house that is not paid off. I don't want to financially support a person who is living beyond their means while understanding that stepping down in life from a certain level of living is a real psychological punch.

Can you share your experiences with this? How have you approached this kind of transition? If you're currently taking on responsibilities for a parent do you feel like you have the kind of communication that works? What does that look like? How do you balance this with autonomy? Is it possible? What about when the mental abilities of the parent seem to be going downhill?
posted by amanda to Human Relations (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My brothers and I are in the reverse of this situation, where our Mom insists she can still afford everything she has been able to afford before (and she is...sort of, but has a reverse mortgage that's running out, and an incredibly tiny pension that will run out by the end of next year, and Social Security is going to barely keep her going, if she downsizes, which she hasn't agreed to do yet.)

This absolutely requires your husband and his sister to get together and formulate a game plan. If your mother-in-law shuts down and triangulates with the other sibling, it's not going to work, and someone will be left holding the bag.

Also, there are some assumptions going on in your...assumptions, here. Your mother-in-law has asked for a single thing from you two and something from your in-laws. This doesn't mean she's going to require full support anytime soon. Yes, it's good to but boundaries around stuff sooner rather than later, but if you approach this as a, "Mom, we have to talk about not being able to support you," instead of a, "Mom, we don't think we can afford to host you right now" situation, it could escalate quickly. (We are doing the reverse, as I said, so it's more of, "Mom, I'm going to pay for someone to shovel the snow this winter, don't worry, if you want to shovel it next winter when you're 74, we can discuss it.")
posted by xingcat at 8:27 AM on July 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Your MiL owns a house and is asking for airfare? I mean who knows but if she's owned the house (paid off or not) for I'm going to guess 15+ years, and isn't in a terrible market, and hasn't been bankrupted by medical bills ...
posted by zippy at 8:34 AM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you need to find out who you are supporting when you pay for things for your MIL. What does the divorce agreement say in terms of financial support for her? By that, I mean, are you really supporting your FIL by paying for things for MIL? Should he be paying? How much is his financial support to her? Also, if FIL always took care of the finances and now they are divorcing in their 60s, MIL may just not know how to budget and do basic obvious financial things because she never had to learn. Now she may need tutoring or guidance on that more than sending funds.

I think that saying to you MIL or FIL or anyone else for that matter that right now, your own funds are tight and you are not able to help with extras such as presents or travel is a reasonable thing to say. If you don't learn to say no when appropriate, your in-laws will always be making the financial decisions in your family if even indirectly.
posted by AugustWest at 8:34 AM on July 6, 2016 [10 favorites]

My parents had this experience with my mom's parents (my grandparents) when the grandparents divorced. My family is all guess culture. No one really discussed things from what I've heard. It eventually led to my grandma moving in with me and my parents when I was a small child and she lived there for like 20 years. All because my mom thought it would be uncharitable to do otherwise. This basically ruined my parents marriage, as I found out a few years ago from my dads brother, who told me that my dad ended up resenting my mom and her mom for all the financial shit and her living with them forever.

Now I'm not saying this will happen but it's a cautionary tale because with guess culture no one fucking talks and makes a game plan. If it were me I'd want the MIL to talk with husband and siblings about exactly what the financial situation is and everyone come to a long term plan together. If she won't talk about it, you can't just start paying for things. You can't force people to downsize or spend wisely and you are not obligated to take on their financial burden.
posted by FireFountain at 8:42 AM on July 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Beyond figuring out the financial problems of your MIL, you need to work on building a good pattern of communication with your husband around his family's issues. I know many people (particularly in guess cultures) who grow up with a very strong sense of filial obligation. It may be obvious to you that your own little family's needs are absolutely a higher priority than his parents but that may not be the way he feels about. You need to respect that his feelings are valid and be able to talk about your differences.

The other things that can be really helpful is to encourage your husband to talk to his siblings so that they can all be on the same page (if possible). Dealing with parents is hard but if they can do it together it will make the decisions of the next 20 years much better. My guess is that it will be very hard to get your MIL to disclose her finances - it has to be approached (by your husband, not you) gently and with love and respect and even then it may not work.
posted by metahawk at 8:47 AM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do you have a financial adviser? It doesn't have to be someone you've hired personally; there may be somebody at your retirement provider who can talk to you over the phone and figure out what level of support to parents would be in keeping with your financial needs, education for your kids, etc. A financial adviser I interviewed told me a big part of her job was telling people when they had to say no to these kinds of requests.

You are right to be concerned. You've got college to save for. Your inlaws, apart from divorce, are at an age where people often have the big family conversation about what their outlook is going into retirement, etc. So maybe approach each of your parents about doing that now.

I didn't support either of my parents financially. We grew up with my father and his siblings supporting their mother pretty early, both financially and she lived with my aunt for years. Everyone experienced her as being difficult, but the financial part was fairly smooth. I am pretty sure they had a detailed plan as to who covered what, and they all had or made good money, but even so they had to say no sometimes.
posted by BibiRose at 8:47 AM on July 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

On the flip side, what kind of heartless jerks are we to not spend money on the parents?

The fact that you're thinking about them this way automatically makes you NOT a heartless jerk, if that helps.

I don't want to financially support a person who is living beyond their means while understanding that stepping down in life from a certain level of living is a real psychological punch.

My story is that my mother (75) has never been able to manage money, and she is now struggling a bit because she blew through both her inherited money and the considerable equity in her homes. She has some minor mental issues, anxiety mostly, but it's not bad enough that she can't function, though work was never high on her list of priorities. For a long time I didn't realize just how much she depended on the inherited money, because she "forgot" about that additional diamond necklace in the attic or to tell me about how she refinanced the house yet again.

Several years ago, after the thousandth conversation where she complained that she didn't have any money because people are mean, I finally said: "I'm not giving up my violin lessons for you." Period. Which basically means: "I'm doing what I want and when I want, with my money, because I worked hard for it. If I have a little left over, sure, I'll help out, but not before that." Just the other day I took her on a short vacation, because I had the extra money and I'm not a heartless jerk.

When I start feeling bad that she's bored some of the time, I remind myself that she made her choices, and now she has to live with them.

Definitely figure out the finances. Don't let them be vague about it. If they don't have a good explanation about why they need money for X, then say sorry, I'm not going to spend my own money unless I know EXACTLY why it's needed. It's ok to spend a little money on them; don't fall into the all-or-nothing thinking trap of "the only two choices are to live in the poorhouse or else be heartless jerks."

Best of luck to you. This sucks. But just because they're your/his parents doesn't mean you have to do what they say. (Especially with children, good lord, always prioritize the children!)
posted by sockerpup at 9:04 AM on July 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

I grew up poor, with parents who never talked about money (except during arguments). My mom stayed home and my dad worked, sometimes, but never told her how much he made. She asked for a household allowance; sometimes she got it and sometimes she didn't. I just found out the reason my dad left my family when I was 10 was because she'd bought a vacuum cleaner on credit without asking him first. (He, meanwhile, bought and sold cars at will and moved us in and out of places without discussing it with my mother first.) As a result, I have been fuzzy about money most of my life. Vague. Unclear. Not sure how much I had or didn't have. Because money was SCARY. Then I decided I to grow up and take care of myself. Now I know what I owe, don't owe, how much are in which accounts, what my retirement looks like (like many Americans, it looks dismal), etc.

At different times in my life I helped support my mom, who paid for my first year of college and did what she could to help me. I *am* one of those people raised to believe in family first, but am no longer willing to do so if it endangers my health, financial health included. So as your husband talks to his mother and siblings, consider getting your own financial act together. Check out Get Your Shit Together to deal with a will, living will, and life insurance if you haven't already, because you have kids. If you don't have an emergency savings fund, build one. And absolutely, max out your retirement savings accounts. And if your husband disagrees, then max out your own savings account. Nobody else will do this for you. This is your life vest. Put it own asap.

As someone noted upthread, there's a big jump between helping someone out with a plane ticket and having them move in with you. There's plenty of good advice upthread. It's not just your in-laws who are fuzzy about money, I bet. We learn (or fail to learn) about money from our family, so this might be a good time to develop shared goals with your husband financially (if you don't have them already).

It sucks to be old, poor, and delusional. You can acknowledge your MIL's distress and hardship in some way without impoverishing yourself. Things aren't black and white; usually we have more than two choices in any given situation. So don't panic, and do develop a thoughtful response with your husband, and model good financial choices for your children. That's truly important work. Unless you think about retirement now and plan for it, you may end up like your MIL. Show your kids there are other choices, while still being kind and supportive to your in-laws.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:35 AM on July 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Boundaries! You and your husband must decide together that your family comes first. When dealing with money, you have to think ahead. Plan for having something for your children's children. Agree on a set amount that he can pull out of the budget every month to put aside for his mother, even if it is only $10. This amount should come from his pocket money. He should be the one to forgo Starbucks or a new pair of shoes. It should not come from the budget that provides for your child.

From that amount, he can do as he likes, without it turning into something that could drive a wedge between the two of you. If that small amount pays to have her come for a visit and eat out the entire time then, great. If not, then she will just have to find another way to have a free vacation. This isn't your fight. It is up to your husband and his sister to deal with their parents. You only need to support and love your husband, while gently reminding him that he needs to protect his offspring from financial ruin.

Now, from your pocket money, you should start putting aside your own stash. Just a little bit here and there so that you can surprise your husband with a plane ticket to go see his mother, without you. It's just the nice thing to do.
posted by myselfasme at 9:46 AM on July 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Could you do something like suggest that she find a good financial advisor, maybe talking it up as something people you know have done after divorce and found really helpful - or as an obvious, matter of course thing that everyone does, e.g. "have things been okay with money? Have you found a good financial advisor yet?"

In an ideal reality, an advisor could be the one to tell her to cut back, if that's the problem, and help her think through all the things that might happen in the future. At some point you could even figure out a way to have a joint meeting, maybe remotely.

This assumes that she's someone who's willing to accept input from her children, that she'd listen to her advisor, and that the advisor would be a good one.

Have you been thinking about this with respect to your partner's father and to your own parents too? Has your brother's sister? If so you could present all of this as a general putting-in-order of all your affairs - last time you did this the kids were young or not all born yet, your advisor told you to do this every X years, etc. - and now that you're all older you're thinking more seriously about planning for the future and paying for college and what your plan is should anything, heaven forbid, happen.

(To be honest this is something worth doing in any case, and if she won't do it on her own maybe you can have her meet with an advisor of yours sometime when she's visiting. And I agree that this needs to be figured out together with your sister-in-law.)
posted by trig at 9:56 AM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your vote is about as big as your financial involvement. My parents are fortunate to be financially independent with retirement planned. My vote with them is basically zero. If you help with the plane ticket and the dinner bills, then you help determine the details of the trip, including the start and end dates. And if you are asked to support her in a more regular or significant manner, then you get a more regular and significant say. I think helping with the plane ticket is a great opportunity for you and your husband to start a non-confrontational in-person conversation with her to find out more about where she is at and how she is doing. You can also set your boundaries and make your expectations clear.
posted by juliplease at 10:05 AM on July 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's some great advice in here, but a lot of it is going to be dependent on what your spouse is willing to do. If he's on board, fantastic! If not, you need to decide what you're willing to live with.

My husband is from a different culture than me and we support his mother and occasionally his little sister as well. Most of it is cost of living stuff, but there have been cases where we have given up what we wanted so that they could have something they wanted (but did not need). We've also delayed our plans to buy our own place endlessly because we always seem to need to send a chunk of our saved down payment for some emergency or another.

We fought A LOT about this early in our marriage but at some point I realized that while he has gotten better at telling them no for things that aren't necessary, supporting them is non-negotiable for him. I then had to decide whether it was a deal breaker for me or not. In the end, he does push back on their requests a little bit more and I have accepted the fact that this is the way our life is. Luckily, I am not so set on owning stuff, and when he complains that we don't own our own house or car I (usually) gently remind him that he's made his own choices around that.

Honestly though, it helps that we have little debt of our own and that I make enough money that I can have a pretty good existence even if he has sent all his money to his family. I know I'd be okay even if he chose to drain his accounts and send it all to them. It's frustrating though, I won't pretend it isn't.
posted by scrute at 10:27 AM on July 6, 2016 [8 favorites]

I've supported family members in the past and my MIL lives with us, in part because her means would be stretched harder at full rent (but she contributes financially and via labour and we're thrilled.)

So I agree with the budget recommendation. You need to sit down with your husband and figure out an amount that can be allocated to giving to family and then as a team you can decide if she gets it all. Then you field her requests according to what's in the budget. "We can only spare $110 towards your flight but I'm happy to send it." You may have to gently remind your husband of the limits. At the very least agree the help is dependent on having cash to give - no putting stuff on credit for her.

If she needs more serious help later then that's a large family discussion. There are lots of ways to help people that aren't just handing over money (accessing housing waiting lists, etc.) but it doesn't really sound like you are there yet. "I'm so sorry to hear that" is my go-to with family money asks (we are clinging to the middle-middle class by our fingernails but our family's perception is different.) with direct asks I usually say with warmth "it's not possible but let me brainstorm" or whatever.

Her financial life is otherwise kind of her business. I get it; we watched my MIL go into debt and it was frustrating but all our steps, including choosing a house with essentially an in-law suite, were very deliberately based on what we could do, not on her choices.

I think the best investment might be a few marriage counseling sessions on this topic. Your statement about restaurants is concerning because even if she has an issue that means you really can't cook for her or her for herself, like you don't keep a kosher kitchen or something, then it would be totally fine to pick up food for her (possibly at her cost, just drive her) and bring it back without having to spend tons of money on food out for everyone. That you don't feel able to makes me think you and your husband talking it through with 3rd-party support might really help.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:38 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

In the short term -- and only in the short term -- you may want to look at this not as purchasing 1/2 a plane ticket or whatever. Rather, you are helping your mother in law to temporarily salvage some sense of dignity and self worth, which probably are taking a hit in the divorce and may be taking further hits with mental and physical decline. She may be able to better able to do what is necessary (e.g. sell the house) in a year or two, even given the decline.

I know this may only put off an inevitable conversation and possible conflict about your mother in law's finances, but sometimes delay brings additional clarity. The situation right now may look like a slippery slope to dependence, but you can get off that slope if and when you and your husband want.
posted by ferdydurke at 11:02 AM on July 6, 2016

It sounds like you and your husband need to get on the same page about the vision you have for handling finance both in your immediate and extended family. You both seem to have different levels of comfort discussing financial matters and maybe different understanding about what's expected in terms of providing financial support to family members.

You might want to specifically look at financial therapy. A financial therapist isn't going to give you investment advice. They will help you and your husband get on the same page about how you view the role of money in your lives, the financial goals you have, the emotional baggage you may have and how money impacts relationships.
posted by brookeb at 11:02 AM on July 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's got to be an open and honest conversation. Would not mention the flight, gifts, etc. - basically, write those off as kindness extended to a family member. Would say instead: "Mom. Look. We don't know what's going on, but the divorce happened, and we're a little worried about what's next for you. What's the real situation? And what is your plan for the next 20 years? We love you and want to be sure you're going to be ok. If there's no plan, let's work on one together". There has to be a realistic plan, otherwise she's going to be screwed, and everyone else is going to be broke and/or will feel guilty. So in that sense, unless you're willing to completely drop her, yeah I think it is your business.

If she's in her 60s and has chronic health problems (including poor mental health), maybe she hasn't worked? So she's probably just got her government pension, and whatever equity in the house. Maybe a bit of alimony.... Logically, the thing for her to do is sell the house and move to an apartment or condo with low maintenance fees that's highly accessible (no stairs etc) and within spitting distance of a hospital and/or one of her kids. Would aim for a plan along those lines. Push if you have to - it's the absolute worst to have to improvise in the middle of a health or financial crisis. Not many good options when you're short on time, usually. (Housing lists are a good solution, but they often have years-long waiting lists, even for seniors.)

Got to talk to the lady, end of.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:00 PM on July 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

My sweetie and I offer a significant amount of financial and logistical support to one of my parents and have for a number of years. Said parent can be, and has been, very difficult to deal with and getting to a good place was a lot of work for us. It helps that it is consistent with both our value systems that supporting our friends and family, as we can, is something that is important to us. Despite the challenges, I think ultimately it has been good for our partnership. Sounds crazy, I know, but here's why.

When it became clear that it was our support or homelessness for my parent it forced us to clean up our own financial health. We had been on a slow path out of debt for a couple of years, but this helped us cutback and prioritize to budgeting and getting out of debt faster. Nothing quite like a counter example of where you don't want to be.

Having the hard, honest talks about our own money, our values around money and family support, figuring out the budgeting and the logistics of dealing with a difficult person who needed our support also gave us another common goal to work towards together. We became even more of a unified team. My sweetie helped me break some unhealthy patterns with my parent but also 100% had my back when it was necessary. This is something we went into together, as a team, with both of us making the decision. I think this is key to minimizing resentment for you. We have both worked very hard to see each other's biological family are OUR family. So we are supporting a parent, not my parent. Way easier said than done, and of course, there are still difficult moments, but at the end of the day, we can trust that everyone means well.

This has been difficult, but this could also be an opportunity for you and your husband to become an even stronger team.

On the side dealing with my parent, we were both helped and hindered by the fact that our relationship has been rather non-traditional. After a lot of trial and error and clear communication about what kind of money we are both willing and able to pay and my parent's clear need to feel independent we found it was easier to take on a few of the fixed costs and allow my parent to spend what little money they have at will. But this required many clear conversations about finances, very firm and consistent boundary-setting and, frankly, a fair number of tears (once I was no longer in the room with my parent.)

It was very important to us that our support not feel coercive while still protecting our future retirements and quality of life. I joke that my parent has been my opportunity to live what I believe. Again, way easier said than done, but if you squint just the right way it looks like a gift.

But this is the most important part, you and your sweetie must be on the same page about what this will look like and you must be sure you are taking care of your own futures first, as much as possible, so your children aren't asking a similar question in 40 years. That is the best gift you can give them. I do a lot of work to be able to see these experiences as "opportunities". I really am grateful that my sweetie and I have been able to become such a good team. But I certainly have my moments of resentment that my parents couldn't get it together enough to become independently functioning adults. I can acknowledge all the systemic and societal factors that contributed to how they got to where they were and I can find the compassion again. But sometimes you are just going to feel pissed off. And that is OK too.

Feel free to memail me if you have more questions about what those group conversations looked like, I have probably rambled on enough here.
posted by Hopeful and Cynical at 4:14 PM on July 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

From xingcat: "This absolutely requires your husband and his sister to get together and formulate a game plan. If your mother-in-law shuts down and triangulates with the other sibling, it's not going to work, and someone will be left holding the bag."

This, absolutely this. If your MIL doesn't need financial help now, there's a good chance she's going to later. At the very least, the siblings should be getting together to chat about this so that they can be in front of things if the situation really goes south. While things are apparently on a gradual slide right now, there's a good chance that one day there's going to be a "drop everything and get on this now" type of phone call. Now, that's easy enough to say... but it doesn't always work out so well. Maybe the siblings don't see eye to eye on things, maybe one is more prone to let Mom do what she wants no matter what, etc. But the conversation should at least be had in case common ground can be reached now.
posted by azpenguin at 4:47 PM on July 6, 2016

Your post says that your parents "are divorcing" which suggests that the financial settlement isn't agreed yet. I think you should have that very awkward conversation with your dad and your mom - to make sure that your mom isn't being disadvantaged by the final settlement. Including your dad in that conversation makes him aware that any points he's scoring in the divorce settlement are only going to hurt his kids.

(Really appreciate everyone's responses - we're probably going to be supporting my MIL in a few years time, the bloke is an only child - and we're trying to plan for that alongside planning for our future.)
posted by finding.perdita at 1:45 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

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