Am I wrong in making my unemployed niece pay rent?


    Dear Penny,

    We recently had to take our mother to a nursing home. Before the move, my niece had moved in with her. My mother has dementia and will probably no longer live at home.

    The niece lived rent-free when Mama was here. She still stays here and still doesn’t pay. She is unemployed but got unemployed. She’s been there since last September. Mom went to the nursing home in February.

    My brother is the permanent power of attorney and is responsible for the expenses. We hope to be able to hang on to the house. For the nursing home, some savings are to be paid for a few years. With the savings gone, we have no choice but to sell the house.

    My niece paid a roommate a substantial sum before moving in with mom. She has had months to save and her expenses are low as she pays no rent or utilities. My brother turned off the cable, but the internet is still on. There are also costs for gas, oil, electricity, property taxes and maintenance. I live out of state but come back for longer visits and work remotely while I’m there. I plan to send my brother a check over the internet, electricity, etc. I usually stay about three weeks.

    Someone has to tell the niece that she has to start paying some of the expenses. I’m not sure how to tell her. When I mentioned it to my sister (the twin of the niece’s mother), she seemed indignant that we would expect money from an unemployed person.

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


    Dear L.,

    When you offered to leave your niece at your mother’s house, you did not waive her rent for life. The conversation you are about to have shouldn’t come as a shock. Notice that I’m saying “not” rather than “not” here. I suspect shock is exactly the reaction you will get.

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

    I think since this arrangement was your idea, you should be part of this conversation. But as a permanent power of attorney, your brother makes the decisions. I think the two of you should speak to your niece together.

    What is good is that at this point you will experience moderate frustration rather than anger. Don’t let things reach a boiling point with your niece. This conversation has to take place soon.

    First, talk to your brother about what a good result looks like. Do you want your niece all out? Is she okay if she stays, if she pays for maintenance and utilities, even if she doesn’t pay rent? Or do you hope that she stays and eventually pays the rent at fair market value?

    I suspect the ideal scenario is somewhere between the second and third options. It is reasonable to expect her to pay something for the rent, but probably not what you would charge a stranger, especially since you stay home on occasion. You and your brother should agree on an amount of dollars that she will be responsible for and any other duties that she will have to take on.

    Regardless of your ideal outcome, give her a heads up that this discussion comes up. Allow time to talk about how to handle expenses so she doesn’t feel blind.

    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 looking ahead. Show your niece the cost of looking after the house and ask her what she can afford to do. She gets unemployed, so she should be able to take action after shopping and other expenses. You can offer to help her draw up a budget or revise her résumé. But ultimately, you need to have a very clear expectation for what you will need from her in the future.

    I hope that a little pressure will give your niece much-needed motivation and that more extreme measures like eviction will not be required. Sometimes an impending deadline forces us to act.

    This is going to be a tough conversation. You had good intentions but now you have to be the bad guy. Please do not kid yourself if you think this situation will change by itself.

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


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