Financial relationships between parents and their adult children can be very delicate indeed. The first question is who owes what to whom-- morally, as well as financially. The second question is what, if anything, parents should do when children borrow money and don't give it back.
Wisconsin lawyer Mandy Stellman and her sociologist husband, Samuel stellman, give joint lectures on family legal and social problems. Whenever they bring up the matter of children taking money from parents and not paying it back, "audiences listen very carefully," Mandy Stellman says. "Usually there is a quiet nodding of heads all around the room."
Among the ways that parents get stuck:
They lend money to their children to buy their first home, and never get the money back. The children continue to need it for their second and third homes, and justify their actions by saying, "Don't worry, Ma, you can always live with us."
They lend money to a son or daughter-in-law to help with their education, then lose it because the couple divorces. Mandy Stellman has just handled such a case. Parents gave the son-in-law $6,000 for graduate school. Now the couple has split and he says, "sue me."
They turn over their financial affairs to their children, who loot the money rather than manage it for their parents' best interest.
They make loans from life insurance proceeds and other cash they get when their spouce dies. "It's frightening to see how many family vultures -- not just children -- come out of the woodwork when a spouse dies," she told my associate, Anne Colamosca. Everyone has an investment scheme that will relieve old mom of the capital she needs to live on.
Both Steillmans recommend that parents not lend money to their children unless they can afford never to see that money again. The child may very well pay it back. But you have to be prepared to lose it. Even an honest child may fall on hard times -- divorce or job loss -- that make repayment practically impossible.
When you do lend, get the protection of a signed promise to repay. A formal note lends moral as well as legal authority to the loan. The child can't kid himself into thinking you really made him a gift. Oral promises to repay are the hardest to enforce either in or out of court.
If you lend money to help buy a home, consider putting yourself down as co-owner. You can then be sure of a share of the proceeds when the house is sold. You're also better protected in case of divorce. Otherwise, your son might give his ex-wife the house, and there goes your investment.
It's also unwise to buy a house, give it to your children, and move in with them. What happens to you if there'a a divorce? What happens if the couple gets a good job offer in another state? Are you prepared to move? When parents can't ake care of themselves, it's wonderful to have children to live with. But don't hasten the day.
The Stellmans advise new widows and widowers not to make any financial decision for at least a year. It takes time for the smoke to clear, and for people to get a good sense of how much money they'll need to live on.
Some parents go overboard for their children, the Stellmans say, even to the point of taking a second mortgage to help their children buy a house. Others are unnecessarily tight-fisted.
In the latter case, Samuel Stellman says, "We find that children are hitting the grandparents for money. The grandparents indulge them, and are often flattered that they were asked for help."
Some children even loot their parents' Social Security checks. Johnny may tell Social Security that his mother can't handle money any more. Social Security asks her doctor for a competency statement, but Johnny has also persuaded the doctor that mother is confused. There are no legal safeguards or court procedures. Social Security gets the paperwork, and if it supports Johnny's contention, he is named payee for his mother.
Some children are well meaning, "but some just want the money," says Paula Heichel, deputy director of Legal Counsel for the Elderly in Washington, D.C. The parent can, however, appeal and get the check back. "Just the fact that she files an appeal," Heichel says, "Shows she's got some smarts."