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My mother’s late husband came with baggage — ‘his deadbeat son.’ Is she on the hook for his debts? Can she evict him from her home?

Ten years ago, my mother married a wonderful man. Unfortunately, her husband came with some baggage — a deadbeat adult son in his mid-40s. Sadly, my mother’s husband passed away about a year ago, and his deadbeat son is still living in the home. 

He has big problems with alcohol, anxiety, and simply can’t hold a job for longer than a few months. He has lived with them — rent-free and utility-free — for the duration of the marriage. It is a classic “enabling” situation, and I’m not looking for advice or judgment on that.  

My mother and her husband bought a home in Massachusetts with a 50/50 split. Neither side of their family gets an inheritance until they both pass away, and my mom can live there for the rest of her life. 

I have two questions:

1. Can my mother legally evict her deadbeat stepson? She gave him a year of free rent and utilities after the passing of his father, which was more than fair. But he technically “owns” 12.5% of the home (he has three other siblings). He is flat broke, but recently got a job so it’s time for the enabling to end, and let him spread his wings or hit rock bottom.

2.  Two years before my mother’s husband passed away, he cosigned a car loan for the deadbeat son, a horrific financial mistake as the car is drastically underwater with a preposterous rate. The deadbeat son stopped paying the note on the car three months ago (shocker, I know). Does my mother, or the estate, “inherit” the loan? Or are we in the clear?

Again, I’m not looking for judgment, I’m just looking for advice and a path forward from this horrific example of enabling.

Brother-in-Law

“Did your stepfather leave a will? Did he leave the house to his wife with the intention of it then being split between his children? Or did the ownership of the home pass to your stepfather’s children upon his death?”

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Dear Brother-in-Law,

I hope the Moneyist is a judgment-free zone, although I do on occasion highlight inequities or an imbalance of power in certain circumstances. I do feel it necessary to mention that you use the term “deadbeat” in your letter five times. Addiction is regarded as a disease by most professionals, but I understand that you are frustrated with your late stepfather’s son, and you also are — understandably — afraid that your mother will end up dealing with the problems that arise from his residency in her home, and from the debts for which his father co-signed. 

Your attorney will have lots of questions to answer: Did your stepfather leave a will? Did he leave the house to his wife with the intention of it then being split between his children? Or did the ownership of the home pass to your stepfather’s children upon his death? If they owned the home as “tenants by entirety,” your stepfather and mother each owned the home equally and, upon his death, your stepfather’s share would automatically pass to your mother. In that case, she would have more power to evict your stepbrother.

But there are other possibilities that would make it harder to evict your stepbrother from the family home. “If he died without a will and the deed was as ‘tenants in common’ with a 50% interest by both, then your mother should be entitled to the first $200,000 of the estate, plus two-thirds of the remainder of the estate, which would only include a 50% ownership interest in the house, as she would already have 50% ownership though the deed,” says Massachusetts-based attorney Gary Lees.

“She would then either have full ownership, in which case she could evict, or she would have partial majority ownership, in which case she could file a petition to partition and detail the use and occupancy expenses she incurred in allowing him to remain living there for the past year,” he says. “These expenses could act as an offset to his interest in the property. If there is still any remaining interest, she could ask the court to order her to buy out his remaining interest. Once she has full interest, she could then evict him.”

One-year grace period for creditors

There are other issues of timing. “Was a probate opened for his estate? In Massachusetts, creditors have one year to file a claim against an estate,” says Massachusetts-based attorney Nick Murray. “If there was a probate of the estate, and if the one-year period has passed, the lender cannot make a claim against the estate and the debt belongs solely to the decedent’s son and not to the estate. If the one-year period for creditors to file a claim has not yet passed, the lender could file a claim against the estate.”

Murray has another solution. Your mother buys out his interest in his father’s estate by paying off the car loan in full or in lump sums for the period left on the one-year probate creditor period. “Such an agreement, in writing, could potentially waive all claims of inheritance the son has against the estate in exchange for the payments to the lender and, after the one-year period has passed with an open probate, the remainder of the car-loan debt would be the sole responsibility of the son because the lender can no longer file a claim against the estate,” he adds.

I hope you all resolve this issue amicably, that your stepbrother gets the help that he needs, and that your mother is able to navigate this situation in a way that respects all parties involved. It sounds like your mother and stepfather did the best they could at the time, with the tools and knowledge they had of how to deal with an individual with substance-misuse issues and other mental-health issues. Each case is unique and now that your mother is alone in the family home, I agree that the time has come to take some kind of positive action.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aims to help families dealing with addiction issues. It offers advice on how to start a conversation with a loved one: “1. Identify an appropriate time and place. 2. Express concerns, and be direct. 3. Acknowledge their feelings and listen. 4. Offer to help. 5. Be patient.”

If you, or a family member, needs help with a mental or substance use disorder, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889, or text your zip code to 435748 (HELP4U), or use SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to get help. You can also find more resources and advice for families from SAMHSA here.

Here are other resources for people with family members who have addiction issues: The Center for Motivation and Change published this book, “Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change.” Dr. Robert Meyers, who has been working in the field of addiction for four decades, developed the CRAFT approach to encourage a family member to engage in treatment.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

My father has dementia and ‘forgave’ my brother’s $200,000 house loan. The nursing-home notary said he was of sound mind. What can we do?

My husband bought our house with an inheritance. I signed a quitclaim. He said I could live there after he dies, but changed his mind. What now?

Low-paying jobs are the economy’s way of saying you should get a better job’: I’ve decided to stop tipping, except at restaurants. Am I wrong?

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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