Carolyn Hax: What happens when parents go broke during their golden years

Carolyn Hax
Columnist November 17, 2011

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

What is the responsibility of adult children to parents if the parents cut them off financially after 18, and if the parents’ money runs out? Is there any obligation to take them in and care for them in their declining years?

Anonymous

Unfortunately, the “obligation” issue isn’t so clear as, “You didn’t pay my tuition, so I’m not obligated to take you in when you’re old and broke.” There are some people who could live with that decision, but most would be haunted by it.


If adult kids are uncomfortable with (or foresee resenting) the idea of supporting their parents after said parents burned through their money irresponsibly, then that needs to be part of the conversation before the parents’ money runs dry. For example: “If you’re in danger of running out of money, then we all need to start planning now, because we haven’t planned on supporting you.”

Re: Obligations:

What if you know your parents are running out of money, but they’re still spending as if they’re not? Is there any way to say, “Hey, stop, I don’t want to have to support you for 15 years instead of 10”?

Anonymous 2

You can say that, just that way, but that doesn’t mean it will work. I wish there were a magic answer here, but as in all cases where competent adults are handling their lives incompetently, there’s just not a whole lot you can do.

You can try to get your parents to join you at a meeting with a reputable financial planner, preferably one who specializes in retirement resources; you want the person to be familiar with all available programs for the aging. Eldercare.gov is one place to start.

If they won’t go with you, go solo, and also go over your finances to see if you’re able to increase your savings, just in case you acquire some extra dependents.

Re: Obligations:

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I wouldn’t want to take care of my parents after they spent their money irresponsibly. I get that things can happen and you can’t guarantee funds forever, but it seems like a different story if the parents are spending like crazy and expecting the kids to take them in. I don’t expect an inheritance, but I also don’t expect my parents to assume that I would take care of them if it’s their own fault that they spent all of their money.

Anonymous

Yeh, drag ’em to the curb!

It’s a lot easier to have this belief than to act on it. And, some people find it hard even to imagine: Maybe Ma and Pa made you pay for college and partied away their retirement money, but few adult kids can legitimately argue that their parents did nothing for them (that parents didn’t owe the kids by having them — discuss).

Anyone who is staring down a decision like this would be well served by a research expedition into what the (current) social safety net involves. Figure out what indigent senior citizens would actually have to live in and live on. As a week- or month-long experiment, consider trying to live on the per-person pocket money they’d have on Social Security alone.

More from Lifestyle:

Ask Amy: Homeless friends may part ways

Miss Manners: Disapproval of friend’s spouse is best kept to yourself

‘Harmless flirting’ or a trust issue?

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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