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The Moneyist: My brother-in-law has menial jobs, borrows money and lives with his parents. Will I be his ‘keeper’ after his parents are gone?

I have a brother in law, “Mark,” who is not financially competent and who still lives at home with his parents, despite being in his mid-40s. Mark has in the past lived on his own with a partner, but that relationship ended a number of years ago. Since then he has lived at home and bounced around from one menial-wage job to another.  

He has little to no savings despite having lived at home for roughly the last 10 years. He also has no credit cards because he ran up large debts, and his parents made him get rid of the cards and begin to pay down the debt. 

Despite this, a few years ago they allowed Mark to purchase an expensive new vehicle that likely required them to co-sign his loan. To my knowledge, many of his bills go to his parents, who he then pays to live at their home. In my mind, they are continuing to enable this bad financial behavior.

The tricky part of this story is that Mark may have an undiagnosed autism disorder. His parents have speculated this to be the case for a long time now, but no one has ever raised this concern with Mark himself. 

‘My in-laws are in their early 70s and will not be around forever to take care of Mark. They are already retired.’

If my in-laws feel this strongly about his possible condition, I feel that they owe it to him to share their thoughts and hopefully get him the help he needs to transition to a more independent lifestyle. He has the capacity to both live on his own and hold down a job.

My in-laws are in their early 70s and will not be around forever to take care of Mark. They are already retired and live on a modest fixed income. Naturally, I am worried about what will become of Mark once they are no longer in the picture. Just the other week, he asked my wife for gas money because he was short until his next paycheck. 

From a financial perspective, there will be no large inheritance to pass down to Mark, and what little money he does receive will likely be squandered shortly after he receives it. I fear it won’t take long before he looks to me and my wife to bail him out of any financial pickle he finds himself in. 

I have two young kids who I am diligently setting aside college money for — in addition to saving for my own retirement. Adding another grown adult to the mix of people that I will need to financially support is untenable. 

I want to outline my concerns to my in-laws so that we can begin to help Mark move into a better situation. However, both his undiagnosed medical condition and estate planning seem like taboo topics to raise with them. What guidance can you offer? Am I my brother-in-law’s keeper?

Worried About All Our Futures

Dear Worried,

You’re not legally responsible for your brother-in-law. As I told this letter writer, you can do what you are able while all parties are still here to help prevent a worst-case scenario. But the good news is there’s a lot you can do. In fact, there’s a lot we can all do for our family members, neighbors, friends and acquaintances by keeping an eye out for each other. We humans are a tribe.

Your brother-in-law may or may not have autism, which is a complex and varied diagnosis. Many people with autism lead full and independent lives and, yes, many people with autism do need support throughout their life. You can give that support without viewing it as a zero-sum game of either “I need to support him financially” or “I will do nothing at all.”

You can help your in-laws formulate plans for the future, based on their assets. The Autism Society has some guidance: “The financial security of many individuals with Autism depends upon such public benefits as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).” The society also notes that a special-needs attorney can help families determine whether a person may be eligible for government assistance.

‘Your in-laws may wish to set up a special-needs trust, as those are not considered income for government means testing.’

The Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly known as Section 8, a federally funded program to help low-income tenants afford rent, is also an option. Renters and landlords work together, with the landlord receiving a subsidy from their public-housing authority and the renter paying the difference. However, those vouchers are competitive, and only about one-quarter of people who apply end up receiving one.

Michael J. Greenberg, an estate-planning and elder-law attorney based in New York, offers these tips: “Build consensus from other siblings or concerned family members. Don’t put off the conversation too long, and select a calm, private time and place. Decide who will be bringing up the topic and leading the conversation. Better to focus how you care about your in-laws and offer to research, or help participate in any meetings with financial advisers or attorneys.”

He adds: “Don’t be accusatory during the conversation. If you start with ‘You didn’t plan’ or ‘you are enabling him,’ the conversation will not go well.”

Your in-laws may wish to set up a special-needs trust, as those are not considered income for government means testing. This would provide your brother-in-law with a modest income that would help him meet his financial obligations for utilities, food and rent, while helping prevent him from making financial decisions he may regret later.

“If Mark’s parents don’t have a lot of money, perhaps they can consider using a second-to-die life-insurance policy to fund the trust for Mark’s benefit,” Greenberg says.

Mark has a responsibility here, too. If you and his parents continue to loan or give him money when he has nothing left at the end of the month, he may become reliant on your generosity to bail him out when he makes mistakes. You can help him budget for his income and expenditures and help him come up with a plan to make sure that he has enough money every month. 

I appreciate that you are worried about Mark and his future. You are coming from a good place. It can be a challenge for all of us to act from a place of support and service rather than a place of fear, especially when we feel under pressure and — rightly or wrongly — obligation to be someone’s sole source of support. It’s a balance. And you can set boundaries now.

You have a family to raise and a retirement to plan for, so you must obviously put that first.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

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