Dear Helaine: My mother-in-law struggled with addiction most of her adult life. She is sober now, but looks for instant gratification through non-chemical means.
She retired early with a modest disability pension and receives Social Security. She owns a home that is paid for in full, and she now uses it as a rental.
After her retirement, she came into significant money when her husband died, from his life insurance policy. She then went on a years-long spending spree, including a new home she was unable to maintain and ultimately sold at a huge loss, world travel and an obsession with mail-order shopping. Now the money is all spent, she's in over her head, and refusing to change her lifestyle.
She feels we owe it to her to give her the money to continue to live as she enjoys. She demands that we buy a handicapped-friendly duplex where we would live in one unit, while she lives in the other rent-free and help her with her monthly expenses. We are far from wealthy, and we have a child in college. In short, there is no way we can give her what she thinks she is owed.
She won't stop spending, and I'm afraid that when she ends up homeless, we'll be forced to take her in. It's a terrible situation, to be able to see the train wreck coming and not be able to control the situation or make it stop. How would you recommend we proceed to protect ourselves while ensuring she doesn't end up living under a bridge? My husband is an only child, and there is no one else to help carry this burden. -- Desperate Daughter-in-Law
Dear Desperate: Your mother-in-law sounds like she could benefit from attending Debtors Anonymous, or working with a good financial coach (or both), but there's a catch: She needs to want to do that. And she clearly does not.
I think you and your husband are going to need to make your peace with the fact that this situation is all but out of your control. Hopefully she'll soon realize she can't keep up and either find a rental that costs less than the income she receives from renting out her home, or decide to move back there entirely.
But if she doesn't confront her spending addiction -- and make no mistake, that's what this is -- don't help her out. If you do, you will, with the best of intentions, not only be enabling her financially and emotionally abusive behavior, but also simply delaying the day of reckoning since you don't have unlimited resources either.
As you've no doubt learned by now, it isn't possible to save someone from themselves. If you feel guilty, know this: It's unlikely your mother-in-law will end up truly destitute and homeless. She's receiving a pension and a Social Security check, so in a worst-case scenario, she'll always have some income coming in.
One other thought: It sounds like your husband could benefit from attending the occasional Al-Anon meeting, where he'll met other people who also deal with a parent like his mother. They can give both advice and emotional support.
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