What Do I Owe My Free-Spending, Hard-Luck Parents?

What Do I Owe My Free-Spending, Hard-Luck Parents?

My parents are a few years away from retirement. They are entirely ill prepared financially for this life change and frankly have made — and continue to make — countless poor economic decisions. I am married and the mother of two young children. While I am not wealthy, my husband and I earn more than my parents do now, and far more than they will make once they stop working.

I’m a first-generation American, and my parents have always implied that adult children must help their parents financially. I might have accepted such a fate without question were it not for my parents’ ongoing bad choices. My father has left behind good, well-paying jobs numerous times throughout my life, never caring that he had school- or college-age children to support. During the peak of the recession, he was unemployed or severely underemployed for eight years, securing gainful employment only two years ago. My mother, the more responsible parent, has kept the same low-paying, no-benefits job for decades. She admits that she stays because she’s too scared to pursue anything new.

Both handle money poorly. About a decade ago, they co-signed a number of private loans for my sibling to attend college. They are now in six-figure debt as a result, and my sibling, who still lives with our parents, has in the years since never had a consistent, well-paying job.

I feel for them, but I also recognize that they keep digging themselves deeper and deeper into debt. When one of my grandparents died a few years ago, my father — only starting to come out of his nearly decade-long unemployment — spent nearly all his inheritance on a plot of land for the future house he wishes to build in his home country. My mother is a bit of a shopaholic: What she doesn’t spend on necessities and paying my sibling’s debt, she spends on clothes and eating out.

While I would be glad to help them on an emotional and even a caregiving level once they’re too elderly or infirm to care for themselves, I have strong reservations about helping them financially. In recent years, my husband and I have made a big effort to become fiscally prepared for our future and the ongoing responsibility of caring for our young family.

I love my parents. They provided a fairly happy childhood, and they are decent individuals. But what do I really “owe” them? Name Withheld

The main thing you owe your parents is the sort of thoughtful consideration of their prospects displayed in the account you’ve just given. That’s because you’ll need to establish a shared understanding of the limits of what you’re willing to do.

What should you be willing to do? One of the many things it depends on is what your parents are willing to do for themselves. I doubt, for example, that you could just stand by and let them fall into homelessness; nor should you. But the right way to avoid an outcome like that is to try to get them to be more responsible about their limited finances, rather than just footing their mortgage or the rent. And you can reasonably tell them that you’re not going to support them financially if you don’t condone the choices they’re making. They’re free to refuse your advice, of course, but then you’re free to withdraw all but the most basic forms of support. Your obligations are reciprocal.

Confucius is the thinker most associated with “filial piety,” the respectful care of our parents which he called xiào. And for him, xiào was embedded in the norm of reciprocity he called shu. It was right that a child should remonstrate with a parent who would otherwise sink “into the gulf of unrighteous deeds,” he insisted. Simple obedience wasn’t filial piety.

It will be difficult for your parents to accept that their daughter is now in a position to shape the terms of their life in the sort of way they shaped hers when she was young. It’s not going to be easy for you, either: Moving from your relying on them to their relying on you is, as your letter shows, a painful transition, though a common one. But what your parents really need most from you is help in planning for retirement and old age.

Don’t forget that your sibling is a part of the picture. Your sibling, too, has responsibilities to your parents, so you should try to involve him or her. There may be feelings of shame because your sibling’s college education imposed those debts on your parents and because of your sibling’s failure to get the sort of job that would have made repaying them possible. But none of you are better off for not facing these problems.

It’s hard to discuss challenges like these as a family, and it’s probably harder because you have grown up in the United States with cultural expectations at odds with the ones your parents brought from overseas. But the discussion is necessary. If they’re up for it — I’m aware they may not be — it might be helpful to sort through these issues with an independent third party to guide the conversation: a religious leader, a member of your community that you all trust, even a professional family counselor.

The nature and extent of your filial support are going to depend on the outcome of these conversations, which will enable a clearer set of expectations on both sides. No xiào without shu. The first thing you owe your parents, then, is to get those conversations started.

My longtime partner comes from an affluent family that managed to create a couple of successful enterprises a few generations ago and then sold most of them, amassing a considerable amount of money that has been passed down and maintained.

My partner’s father wasn’t successful, but through good financial management, he was able to keep his fortune mostly intact. Now he has late-stage dementia and is completely unable to talk or make any decisions, financial or otherwise. The available funds are way more than enough to pay for a senior-living facility for the rest of his life, where he would be well attended.

My partner and his siblings are considering taking a part of the fortune out of the fund and using it for themselves. They would leave an appropriate amount for his father’s care, but as they would inherit the money when his father passes away, they see it as an upfront payment on their inheritance.

But now my partner’s uncles (Hispanic families are nosy and complicated) have found out and are outraged at the idea. The will laid out by my partner’s father states that the money should not be divided until his death, and the uncles want to honor his wishes.

My partner and his siblings are torn apart. Should they honor his father’s last wishes? Is late-stage dementia comparable to death? Are they betraying their father’s will? (They have checked, and legally they can take the money.)

One more thing to note is that he never changed his will after knowing he had dementia, so he probably thought he was going to be mentally fit all these years. Name Withheld

The uncles are right. (And they don’t seem nosier than many gringo families of my acquaintance.) The money belongs to your partner’s father, and he made it clear, when he was of sound mind, what he wanted to happen. It’s true that he is no longer in a position to change his mind; in that respect, it is, indeed, as if he were dead. But as far as the will is concerned, the only circumstance in which the money goes to his children is when he’s actually dead. That’s what he wanted to happen.

Perhaps a trustee could reason that, had your partner’s father been of sound mind, he would have been happy to disburse the funds he no longer needed. A trustee could reason further that, inasmuch as doing so wouldn’t have an adverse effect upon his care for the rest of his life, there would be no harm to him in passing on the money now. But whatever the legalities, it would still be wrong. He made no such advance directive; he didn’t want his fortune to be divided while he was alive, and even if he failed to anticipate his current condition, his children shouldn’t impute to him the kind of foresight that they might find more convenient. Nothing stops them from borrowing now, with the confidence that, when the inheritance is eventually settled, they will be able to pay off their debts later.

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