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Carolyn Hax: Is she selfish to seek reimbursement for moving in with her elderly mother?

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: My mom is still sharp as ever mentally but has become frail enough physically that she sat down with me and my two brothers and told us she no longer thinks she can handle living alone.

She asked us all about living with us, and my brothers – both married – said it wouldn’t be feasible. I – single – said it might be possible and we discussed it more, just the two of us. We agreed I would move in with my mom, she would pay expenses like bills and groceries, and she would leave me the house in her will.

She told my brothers, and they both said I’m taking advantage of her, and they should each get one-third of the house when she dies. My mom thinks they’re right, wants me to pay half the bills and wants to leave the house to each of us equally.

I don’t want to move if I’m not going to have the security of some money saved up and a home to live in when she dies. When I said I no longer wanted to move in with her after she changed the terms of our agreement, my brothers both said I was being selfish. Am I? Is there a fair way for us to do this? – Move in With Mom?

They want none of the caregiving but all of the money, and call you selfish. Project much, brothers?

I’ll say upfront that what you’re offering to do isn’t just a job, and money isn’t its only possible compensation. Caregiving is work, of course, but – if you and your mom get along well or are both committed to getting along better – this time with your mother can be a priceless opportunity to give back to her, get closer to her, know her differently, hear her stories.

Your interest in securing your future is reasonable, though, because you’re uprooting and signing on for a heavy, open-ended responsibility – emotional, physical, financial. Imagine, for example, if your mom develops dementia and turns on you.

So: Do not let your brothers gaslight you out of documented compensation for your doing this important work for your family.

Now, are the entire house and zero expenses the only fair terms? No. You could be a caregiver for 10 years or, pardon me, 10 weeks. A house as compensation for 10 weeks is an arrangement your brothers ought to protest.

There’s certainly room to adjust the terms for both the living expenses and the inheritance, though. You have a sound argument for moving and resettling expenses, both directions; for relief from many, most or all daily expenses both as compensation and so you’re able to save toward a home when you need one; for your brothers to kick in money toward those expenses proportionate to your contribution of time; for extra consideration in the will if you’re in this role long-term.

As terrible as it seems to reduce an act of love to a business deal, the circumstances are such that one of you stands to bear all of the load for the others, and that is a formula for deep and lasting, even family-splitting resentment.

So take a deep breath and state calmly that you’re not looking to profit. You are looking for due consideration of your effort – effort they are unwilling to invest themselves, hello – and security in exchange for the risk you alone are assuming on their and Mom’s behalf. Equal thirds are not in fact equal – not unless you’re made whole in some other way.

Dear Carolyn: My dear mother passed away recently. While expected, it was hard on me. And harder still because it’s now two weeks since the funeral and all the acknowledgment I’ve received from my in-laws are condolences passed to me through my spouse. Not one word to me personally, not a card and no flowers. It’s not as if they haven’t met my mother. They all have socialized together. I know they liked her.

But why no expression of condolences to me, her son?

I’m always required to attend my spouse’s family events, including the funerals of their parents. I don’t think I can face them now, pretending nothing is out of the ordinary. How do I react? – Upset

I am so sorry for your loss.

I’m also sorry you’re on the receiving end of our culture’s stupidity about death. Your story is not unique; so many people, even those who genuinely feel for a survivor, aren’t sure what to do and therefore do nothing.

But that’s a macro issue when the productive one to address is the micro: Where’s your spouse in this? When you got your secondhand condolences, you expressed dismay, no?: “Can’t they tell me themselves?” Your spouse is the proper messenger for a, “Hey, it would mean a lot if you addressed Husband directly.”

Also worth considering, since spouse’s family is “required” but yours get crickets: Any chance this imbalance isn’t new? For that, too, any remedy starts with your spouse.

Email Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at 9 a.m. each Friday at

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