The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on the continued obligations we have while financially supporting our family members.
My husband and I built a luxurious house near ours for his sister and brother-in-law after we learned that they were starting a family. Our motive was admittedly selfish: As two men, we wanted to be part of a nuclear family and help raise their children. We are well off; our brother-in-law is a blue-collar worker, and my husband’s sister stays at home because of untreated anxiety. We agreed to pay the substantial annual real estate tax and not charge them rent.
We are forgoing the $6,000 a month in rental income with the understanding that they will maintain the house. The problem is that they now expect us to pay for all repairs and upkeep, including simple appliance repairs. My husband’s sister, who surrounds herself with enablers, has become a recluse in her beautiful home and won’t even accept responsibility for meeting repair workers when they arrive. It is a source of tension between me and my husband. He feels that we can easily pay those expenses, while I think they should budget for them. (Thanks to our largess, they order takeout food seven days a week with their excess cash.)
The children are now teenagers and far less involved with us than they once were. Am I wrong to insist that my husband’s sister and brother-in-law either maintain the home as a condition of continued occupancy or allow us to sell it, recover the money invested and perhaps provide them with a more limited subsidy? Name Withheld
The trouble with generosity involving family members is that it typically lacks the clarity of a contract. You understandably object to being treated as if you were a landlord, responsible for maintaining the property in which your sister-in-law and her husband live. But in effect, you’re proposing to change the terms of the deal.
By allowing this situation to go on for many years — those teenagers hadn’t been born when you built the house — you created expectations, and people are entitled to rely on reasonable expectations as they solidify over time. Yes, what you’re asking for sounds fair and fitting. But how do things look from their perspective?
Well, one consequence of your too-good-to-turn-down offer is that your sister-in-law and her husband made different choices from those they might have made otherwise. Maybe they would have taken out a mortgage on a more modest house and have accumulated some home equity. For that matter, the upscale home you built, perhaps kitted out with upscale appliances, might be costlier to maintain than one they would have chosen if left to their own devices. You may think the arrangement that you and your husband let them settle into is unfair. When, you wonder, did you ever agree to it? The answer is that, as so often happens in life, you made a slow-motion decision. It wasn’t reached at any one moment; it coalesced from a hundred small moments over the years. All the same, the decision was made. It can’t be reversed on a dime.
There’s another awkward feature of the situation. As your beneficiaries might see it, you were paying for an experience — helping raise these kids — and because their kids no longer want to hang out with their uncles very much, you no longer find the arrangement worthwhile. You’re reluctant to be as munificent as you had been. It’s only now, after all, that you’re proposing that they’ll have to move if they don’t comply with the new terms. Not on their schedule, but on yours.
You worry that the adoption would be bad for your sister and brother-in-law, but the basic issue here is the welfare of a vulnerable child.
Still, despite your talk of selfish motives, I trust that the situation isn’t as transactional as this way of putting it suggests. I suspect that you may simply be annoyed by having to deal with yet another repair that your sister-in-law and her husband should have handled. That makes sense. But as I say, you need to be mindful of the legitimate expectations — and dependencies — that arise from largess.
In any case, you’re not facing the central problem here: Your sister-in-law appears to be unwell and is probably in need of psychiatric help. Your generosity toward her and her husband is predicated on the fact that they’re close family members. You have a right, with close family members, to speak up about issues like this. On your account, she’s not doing things that you think a stay-at-home parent would ordinarily do: arrange for routine repairs, meet the people who will do them, shop for and prepare meals for the household. Whatever the specifics of her condition, you seem to think that her deepening dysfunction is something that your support has, to use your language, enabled.
The main issue is how to get your sister-in-law the help she plainly needs. Getting help doesn’t always mean getting better. But it raises the odds. And if she became more capable, you could ask her to take responsibility for dealing with routine household matters, whether or not she’s picking up the tab for them. You could then present the reduced support as what it would actually be: a sign that after failing to treat her as a responsible adult for too long, you now felt able to do so. Just bear in mind the larger picture. In aiming to help raise the kids, you effectively took on caregiving responsibilities for the parents too. Those can’t be renegotiated on the fly.
Within the past year, my younger sister and her husband have been going through the process of adopting an infant through a private agency. They were recently approved to adopt and are now in the process of locating a match. Though they have two young biological children, my sister has always envisioned having a larger family and adopting.
She and I are very close and share our struggles with each other, and one night last week, she called in hysterics. She and her husband were fighting, and she felt she was “losing her mind” and wondered if they were “crazy” to be adopting. I love my brother-in-law very much and do not judge them for fighting. But they fight often (at least once a week) and end up not speaking to each other. They are in weekly couples counseling, and my sister speaks with a therapist as well. I fear that they are not in a good place to adopt and that the stress that comes with a new baby will not be good for their relationship. I find myself wondering if I should share my concerns with them. Our other family members have similar concerns as well. Name Withheld
Adoption agencies in this country are required to conduct a home study, and when a couple are seeking to adopt, the study typically includes an assessment of the relationship. It’s possible that this troubled pair haven’t been entirely forthcoming with the home-study specialist. In the United States, there are many more parents looking to adopt than there are babies in need of adoption; agencies can and should be selective.
You worry that the adoption would be bad for your sister and brother-in-law, but the basic issue here is the welfare of a vulnerable child. It isn’t ideal for children to enter a home in which their presence brings further stress to a stormy relationship. Your sister and her husband should indeed be urged to rethink their decision. The most effective approach, though, may be to get the rest of the family aligned on this matter and pick the person you think is best placed to speak for all of you.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to email@example.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)