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Am I Wrong to Make My Unemployed Niece Pay Rent?

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Dear Penny,

Recently, we had to move our mom to a nursing home. Prior to the move, my niece had moved in with her. My mom has dementia and is not likely to return to living at home. 

The niece was living rent-free when Mom was here. She is still staying here and still not paying. She is unemployed but has been getting unemployment. She has been there since last September. Mom went to the nursing home in February.

My brother is the durable power of attorney and in charge of expenses. We are hoping to hang onto the house. There are some savings to pay for the nursing home for a few years. When the savings are gone, we will have no choice but to sell the house.

My niece was paying a roommate a substantial sum before she moved in with Mom. She has had many months to save, and her expenses are low since she pays no rent or utilities. My brother turned off the cable, but the internet is still on. Plus there are expenses for gas, oil, electric, property taxes and maintenance. I live out of state but come back for extended visits and work remotely while I am there. I plan to send a check for the internet, electric etc. to my brother. I usually stay for three weeks or so.

Someone needs to tell the niece she needs to start paying for some of the expenses. I don’t quite know how to bring it up to her. When I mentioned it to my sister (the niece’s mother’s twin), she seemed indignant that we would expect money from an unemployed person. 

I guess I need to figure out how to bring it up to her. Before Mom went to the nursing home, there was a big argument because after Mom said she could move in, Mom then decided she didn’t want her here. After Mom was moved to the nursing home, it was my idea for the niece to be able to stay. So, I feel like I should be the one to tell her the free ride is over.

-L.

Dear L.,

When you offered to let your niece stay in your mom’s home, you didn’t absolve her of rent for life. The conversation you’re about to have shouldn’t come as a shock. Note that I say “shouldn’t” rather than “won’t” here. I suspect shock is exactly the reaction you’ll get.

Think about it from your niece’s perspective. After eight months of living rent-free, why should she have different expectations for months nine or 10?

I do think that since this arrangement was your idea, you should be part of this conversation. But as durable power of attorney, your brother is the one making the decisions. So I think the two of you should talk to your niece together.

What’s good is that you seem to be feeling moderate frustration, rather than full-blown rage at this point. Don’t let things reach a boiling point with your niece. This conversation needs to happen soon.

First, talk with your brother on what a good outcome looks like. Do you want your niece out altogether? Are you OK with her staying if she pays for upkeep and utilities, even if she wouldn’t pay rent? Or are you hoping she’ll stay and eventually pay rent at fair market value?

I’m guessing the ideal scenario is somewhere between the second and third options. It’s reasonable to expect her to pay something for rent but probably not what you’d charge a stranger, especially since you stay at the home on occasion. You and your brother should agree on a dollar amount that she’ll be responsible for and any other duties you need her to take on.

Regardless of your ideal outcome, give her a heads-up that this discussion is coming. Schedule a time to talk about how to handle expenses moving forward so that she doesn’t feel blindsided.

Try not to lecture her about all the money she should have been saving since September. I get your frustrations. But really, it’s irrelevant at this point.

Keep the conversation forward looking. Show your niece what it’s costing to maintain the home and ask her what she can afford to contribute. She’s getting unemployment, so she should be able to kick in something, even after groceries and other expenses. You can offer to help her make a budget or revamp her resume. But ultimately, you need to set a very clear expectation for what you need from her going forward.

What I’m hoping is that a little pressure will give your niece some much-needed motivation and that more extreme measures, like eviction, won’t be necessary. Sometimes a looming deadline forces us to act.

This will be a tough conversation. You had good intentions, but now you have to be the bad guy. Please don’t kid yourself by thinking this situation will change on its own.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].




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