My mother’s husband died. Her savings are dwindling, yet she pays my sister’s bills. Should I intervene?


Dear Moneyist,

My stepfather recently passed away. He and my mother were each receiving Social Security, and he had two pensions that were fully paid out during his lifetime. This leaves my mother with about 50% of her original income. She is left with savings and investments with a value of about $150,000.

Eventually, my mother is set to inherit my grandmother’s house where she currently lives and pays monthly rent to my grandmother of $2,500, but I am uncertain when that will happen (possibly in about five years or longer, depending on my grandmother’s health).

My mother’s only income is equal to her housing expenses, so she will need to rely on her savings to pay her bills of about $1,500 to $2,000 a month. They are high, mainly because she pays for my 23-year-old sister’s bills (that amount to $500 to $600 per month).

The Moneyist:My sister became my late father’s power of attorney, took out a reverse mortgage on his home, and drained his equity. What can I do?

I’ve been able to reduce her bills by canceling things she doesn’t use, and negotiating for discounts for her cell phone and TV. I’ve told my mother that my sister should be paying her own bills as she lives rent free in my mother’s home, and just spends her money on whatever she likes.

I thought we were on the same page, but my mother seems reluctant to have this discussion and continues to pay her way. I’m worried that my mother will run through her savings before she gets her inheritance, and then she will be in dire circumstances due to my sister’s indulgence.

Should I push for my sister to be a big girl and learn the concept of responsibility, or should I keep my mouth shut?

Disgruntled sister

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Dear Disgruntled,

I join you, your sister and your mother in wishing your grandmother a long and healthy life. And, of course, I wish the same for your mother too. I understand that it must be hard to watch your mother give hundreds of dollars to your sister every month, especially as she only has a finite amount of savings. But this is her decision to make, as long as she is of sound mind and not under undue influence.

You need an objective voice, preferably a financial adviser, to outline your mother’s financial situation and goals as she faces a life without her husband. It would make a nice New Year’s gift, and you could pitch it as a way of putting your and your mother’s mind at ease. The adviser would then form an opinion on your sister’s role in your mother’s life and finances.

It’s unlikely that your sister will, upon hearing your opinion, suddenly start paying her way. She will accept money from your mother as long as your mother gives it to her. It’s hard to undo such an arrangement. When someone is used to being given special or preferential treatment, they often believe that this is their due. The more pressure you put on both of them, the more defensive they are likely to become.

You need a third party to intervene who does not have a horse in this race.

The Moneyist:My wife and I have 3 kids. I also have 3 kids from a previous marriage. How should we split our house among these 6 children?

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Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.


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