Who’s right in this fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial fight?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - Read­ers can write to Michelle Sin­gle­tary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or sin­gle­tarym@wash­post.com.

One of the quick­est ways to de­stroy a re­la­tion­ship is by fight­ing over money. And the bat­tles can get par­tic­u­larly ugly and hurt­ful when they are among fam­ily mem­bers.

As part of a new fea­ture, I’m invit­ing you to send me your sto­ries about a mon­e­tary dilemma in your fam­ily. Who do you think is right in your fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial fight? Let me help you fig­ure it out.

To that end, here’s a predica­ment one reader wanted me to help her with.

The fam­ily back­ground: She’s one of three daugh­ters of di­vorced par­ents. Two sis­ters are mar­ried and em­ployed but don’t have chil­dren. A third sis­ter, who works part time, is di­vorced with a teenage son.

The fi­nan­cial back­ground: As it stands now, their 82-year-old mother’s as­sets will be di­vided equally among the three daugh­ters.

Since the one sis­ter’s di­vorce, she has been liv­ing at her mother’s condo with­out sig­nif­i­cantly con­tribut­ing fi­nan­cially to the house­hold. For a time, the sis­ter’s teenage son also lived there. Nei­ther par­ent of the teenager has saved for the young man’s col­lege ex­penses. “Ba­si­cally, both are bank­ing on my par­ents to pay for their son’s ed­u­ca­tion,” the reader wrote.

The con­flict: Re­cently, the mother moved to an as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­ity.

“Mean­while, my sis­ter con­tin­ues to live in my mother’s condo. She has be­gun, for the first time in nine years, to pay the util­i­ties and other bills. Oth­er­wise, she and my nephew lived there for all those years with my mother paying for ev­ery­thing.” Per­haps the sis­ter isn’t fac­tor­ing in the care her sib­ling gave to their mother in ex­change for liv­ing there.

The sis­ter who cor­re­sponded with me is up­set that her sib­ling is press­ing their mother, who has can­cer, to put some­thing in her will to pay for her grand­son’s col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. “My nephew is a nice kid, but he is not much of a stu­dent and I have doubts he’d make it through a four-year col­lege. My mother’s as­sets are fine, and she can af­ford to give him money for col­lege. But I per­son­ally feel it would be a waste of time and that he might want to try work­ing a bit and do a lit­tle ma­tur­ing.”

The dilemma: The cor­re­spon­dent sis­ter wants to know if she’s wrong to feel that it is the par­ents’ re­spon­si­bil­ity to pay for their son’s school­ing. Shouldn’t her sis­ter use her own in­her­i­tance in­stead of seek­ing a sep­a­rate award for the son, she asked.

The grand­mother wants to do some­thing for her grand­son and has talked about es­tab­lish­ing a trust for him. “She doesn’t un­der­stand that some­one other than my sis­ter needs to be the trustee in charge of the funds. My mother is one who al­ways helps the un­der­dog, and in this sit­u­a­tion I feel like she is re­ward­ing my sis­ter for be­ing needy and ir­re­spon­si­ble.”

The bot­tom line: This is a com­mon prob­lem in many fam­i­lies. Ag­ing par­ents are tak­ing care of one or more of their not-sore­spon­si­ble grown chil­dren. One or more fam­ily mem­bers are con­cerned that the par­ent or par­ents are be­ing bam­boo­zled.

In this case, I would as­sist the ail­ing mother in find­ing a good es­tate at­tor­ney. The at­tor­ney can help her de­ter­mine the best way to will her money, in­clud­ing leav­ing some in a trust to her only grand­child to go to col­lege. That’s a kind thing for her to do. If there is a con­cern that ei­ther he or his mother will waste the money, the grand­mother can set up the trust and des­ig­nate a re­spon­si­ble per­son — per­haps some­one not in the fam­ily — to over­see the distri­bu­tion of money from her es­tate to the young man.

Be­fore see­ing the at­tor­ney, do some re­search on the dif­fer­ence be­tween a trust and a will. Nolo.com has a good ar­ti­cle ex­plan­ing the pros and cons of each. Search for “liv­ing trust v. will.”

Who is right in this type of fi­nan­cial fight?

I be­lieve par­ents should, as best they can af­ford, pay for their child’s col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. In­deed, the sis­ter could do it with her share of the mother’s es­tate. So yes, it’s quite au­da­cious for the sis­ter to push her ail­ing mother to pay.

It’s rea­son­able to be con­cerned that an ir­re­spon­si­ble adult child is tak­ing ad­van­tage of the gen­eros­ity of an ag­ing par­ent. And yes, it’s fair to voice your con­cerns and even take steps to pro­tect her as­sets so she won’t go broke. But in the end, it’s the mother’s money to do with what she wants.

If you’re mired in a money dis­pute with fam­ily mem­bers, send your story to col­o­rof­money@wash­post.com. In the sub­ject line, put “Who is right in my fam­ily fi­nan­cial fight?” You can re­main anony­mous, so you won’t have to fight about putting your busi­ness in the street.

Michelle Sin­gle­tary THE COLOR OF MONEY

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