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My sister took care of our parents, and kept their $80K savings when they died. Now she wants to live rent-free in their house

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 6/11/2021 Quentin Fottrell
© MarketWatch illustration
'My parents owned a two-unit story building. My sister lived in a unit with my parents, rent-free due to her assisting them, and her daughter lived on the second floor.' © MarketWatch illustration 'My parents owned a two-unit story building. My sister lived in a unit with my parents, rent-free due to her assisting them, and her daughter lived on the second floor.'

Dear Quentin,

Prior to my mother’s passing, she left all her monetary assets to my dad: insurance policy, annuity, cash monies, etc. She named me as the secondary beneficiary, with clear instructions that the monies should be used to benefit the family. The annuity would be divided equally amongst my sisters. 

Two years later, my dad died. My sister was the executor of his estate. She felt that as the executor, she was entitled to all their financial assets, which totaled approximately $80,000.   

None of us are wealthy, but because my sister lived with my parents for approximately eight years prior to their deaths, we didn’t contest her demands. She did the cooking, cleaning and going back and forth to doctor’s visits. Thank God they were reasonably healthy. However, my father was bedridden for approximately four months prior to his passing.

My parents owned a two-unit story building. My sister lived in a unit with my parents, rent-free due to her assisting them, and her daughter lived on the second floor. My parents told my niece that as long as she went to school, she did not have to pay rent. She graduated and became a nurse and started to contribute by paying light and gas bills, etc.

No rent

The property was left to all the siblings (four sisters and three brothers). My sister and her daughter want to reside in the property, but she does not want to pay any rent, or even create a maintenance fund for emergencies. They said they are willing to sign documents stating that as long as they live on the property, they would be financially responsible if anything happens.    

This arrangement does not benefit anyone but them. My sister said she feels that she is entitled because she cared for our parents and all of us have a house.  

My siblings feel that my parents helped her and her child for years. In addition to not paying rent for approximately 10 years or more, they put more than half down on a car for her, so it was a give-and-take arrangement.

Torn apart

Because of this, my family is torn apart. My sister is not talking to her siblings. I have my own personal feelings, but I am willing to ignore things that I feel are not right for the sake of getting along.

However, my brother and I are executors of the property and we do not want to become financially responsible in case my sister does not pay or cannot afford maintenance. Originally, we all wanted to keep the property but since we cannot agree on anything, we want to sell.  My sister wants to stay rent-free for two years.

I need a third party to assess the situation so my niece and sister will know that the family is not being unreasonable. I also want legal advice because I do feel that they should pay a nominal fee to live there. No one (none of us) gets to live for free. They say the property is not up to date, so they should not be charged market rent, or any rent for that matter.

Please help.

One of the Sisters

Dear Sister,

Meet her halfway — or somewhere in between. Talk to your siblings about allowing her to stay for six months to a year after which you prepare to sell.

Ask her to sign an agreement, overseen by your lawyer. If she refuses, the deal is off. Your sister lived with your parents rent-free and as an unpaid caregiver. She was able to work, study and plan for the future while she was there. It was not a totally selfless act. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Tell her that you appreciate everything she has done, but it’s time to bring the process to a close.

Rather than split the $80,000, you generously banded together and allowed her to keep it. That money was part of your parents’ estate and should have been split equally. She can use that money to find another place to live. But to take that money and request (or demand) that she stay put rent-free makes me think that two years will turn into three, and then some. I suspect you will never be able to do enough.

Don’t set yourself an impossible task. Your sister will believe you and your siblings are either reasonable or unreasonable. Allow her that, and accept it. You must do what you believe is the right thing, and leave your sister and her daughter to make up their own minds. Your sister may take a grudge to her grave, but you have no control over her emotional life. You can, however, hire a lawyer to wrap up your parents’ estate in a respectful manner, with no raised voices, if possible.

Disagreements over inheritance tear families apart often when there are already significant fissures present in the familial relationships. People tend to act or react in similar ways in scores of different scenarios throughout their lives. The death of parents removes the one solid presence that kept you all connected. Add money, a house, grief and a host of historical grievances, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, and you have yourself a major rift.

If your parents had wanted your sister to inherit their home, they would have made such provisions in their will. It’s time to step away from the drama and heightened emotion. It’s a storm, and it will continue as long as you participate in it. Similarly, trying to rationalize your sister’s bizarre interpretation of the law will only lead you around in more circles. Do what needs to be done. Call a family meeting. Give her a red-line deadline, and move on.

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