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Heavy Meddle: Help! The Matriarch Is Spending Our Family Into Oblivion

It's not exactly Downton Abbey, but a difficult dowager causes one family to fret over its financial future. (Alon/Flickr)
It's not exactly Downton Abbey, but a difficult dowager causes one family to fret over its financial future. (Alon/Flickr)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

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Dear Steve,

Here's another dysfunctional family question for you. I married into a family whose wealth and its attendant complications make me grateful for my own, far more humble origins. (When my own dysfunctional family goes to pieces on occasion, at least we have the comfort of knowing that it's not because one of us is jockeying for a bigger inheritance.)

Not so in my husband's family. There are three siblings and one very long-lived matriarch, who knows well that her power is the purse string. She wields it like a samurai with a sword.

Now that my mother-in-law has defied actuarial tables, there is worry: How much money is left? Will there be enough to care for her if she needs in-home care (she lives independently and well at 85). Will there be — heaven forfend — anything left to inherit?

Now that my mother-in-law has defied actuarial tables, there is worry: How much money is left?

Recently, my husband investigated his mother's finances, with her knowledge. The short answer to the question I just posed is: No. My mother-in-law spends lavishly and with a magician's sleight of hand. It's hard to figure out where it all goes.

Now, there's a panic building among the siblings, and I'm urging my husband to stay out of it. One sister is supported by their mother and always has a hand out. The other sister works and does well but feels that she's owed something, other than her mother's debts when she passes.

The sniping has gotten intense, with both sisters urging my husband, who lives the closest and sees their mother the most often, to say something to their mother. I should mention that, in the past, when it's come to interventions with my mother-in-law, my husband has always stepped up with assurances of support from each sister, only to be burned when they withdraw support after their mother freaks out.

My message to my husband is: Let your mother live her life and we'll inherit good will, if not money. We're not wealthy, but we work and we're fine and, and if there's nothing left when my mother-in-law goes, we'll still work and be fine. But he's being urged by his sisters to join them for a family sit-down with the matriarch to talk spending.

Would you advise me to stay out of this? I've said my piece. Or do you think I should urge my husband to some other action? I just hate what money does to people.

Thanks, Steve.

Signed, Being Done In By The Dowager

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Dear Being Done In,

Frankly, I hate what people do to people. Money just becomes a convenient way to express our anguish.

This is a complex situation. I think your basic read on it is, well, on the money. You and your husband will be happiest if you focus on providing emotional support to the folks on his side of the family, and steer clear of the drama over money. After all, your mother-in-law is an adult. Unless she’s spending money she doesn’t have — and thus putting her relations at risk financially — she’s free to disburse her income how ever she likes. She can’t take it with her, after all.

You’ve also got a good perspective on your own family. That is: You’re doing fine without any financial support from your mother-in-law, so there’s no need to worry about an inheritance.

Based on what you’ve written, your sisters-in-law are in a different place. One is financially dependent on her mother. The other wants some kind of financial payout on a karmic debt that’s probably emotional.

All that being said, what matters most here is what your husband wants to do. If he feels it’s important that he play some role in this discussion with his mother, I’d urge you to support him. After all, he was the one who investigated his mother’s finances, which set off this panic in the first place. So he might feel, with some justification, that he should play a role in trying to quell this panic.

To me, the real issues to resolve here have to do with confronting the realities of your MIL’s end-of-life planning.

He might also feel — with justification — that his mother’s financial situation could become a serious problem down the line, particularly as she becomes less independent and needs more medical and domestic support. It’s not easy to face those realities, but you and your husband would both be wise to have a discussion about this yourselves, as you are the ones living closest to your mother-in-law. Your husband may be expected (or may expect himself, along with you) to absorb caretaking and/or managing his mother’s care.

Yes, she’s defied the actuarial charts for a long time. But she won’t forever. To me, the real issues to resolve here have to do with confronting the realities of your MIL’s end-of-life planning. Money can be a part of that, in the sense that it can ease the burden on relatives (such as yourself), and afford your mother-in-law a more independent and dignified life.

Am I now suggesting that your husband should take part in the planned “intervention” with his sisters? Not necessarily. But I am suggesting that your mother-in-law’s spending habits could have a much more dire effect on her quality of life in a few years than anyone can anticipate today. In essence, it’s not about what’s going to be left over, but about what is on-hand if, for instance, she needs to move into an assisted living facility. All this talk about “the inheritance” obscures what’s really at stake — not just for you and your husband and MIL, but for all families in this place of struggle.

That’s my two cents. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist.)

Steve

Author's note: Once again, the underlying issue here has to do with facing the realities of end-of-life planning. That’s a hard thing to do, which is why people prefer to argue over money. But that feels like an evasion. That’s my take. What’s yours? Let us know in the comments section below. And feel free to send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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