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The Moneyist: My brother and his ‘worthless’ sons moved into our mom’s house. How can we inherit her home now?


Dear Quentin,

I am the oldest child in our family. My dad died several years ago, and my mom still lives in the family home. Her health is frail and failing. 

About 10 years ago, my baby brother moved in with my mom along with his two children. Both children are adults. I was the executor of her will until about six months ago. 

I think — but I can’t be sure — that my brother convinced my mom to change her will, making him the executor. He claims he takes care of her, and he does. But he is not selfless. He still works long hours, goes out, and basically lives his life. He pays Mom no rent. 

The house is in trust with all of our names, and is to be divided three ways. No problem, right? Not quite.

The trust and the will state that all three of us are equal beneficiaries. In the event of our death prior to Mom’s passing, our children (I have none) will receive our inheritance. No problem there. 

‘Here’s where it gets tricky: the real estate is covered by a land trust, the trustee is the bank, the beneficiary is mom, and the contingent beneficiaries are myself and siblings.’

Here’s where it gets tricky: The real estate is covered by a land trust. The trustee is the bank, the beneficiary is Mom, and the contingent beneficiaries are myself and my siblings.

The contingent beneficiaries are subject to my brother’s right to continue to live in the house. My understanding is that if he chooses to live there, he would be responsible for maintaining the property, but the property may not be sold. When the property did get sold — either upon my brother’s death or earlier — the proceeds would be divided equally.

What does that mean for my sister and myself? Does that mean he can live there with his worthless sons forever? Can he withhold our inheritance and maintain the house with that money? And possibly gamble it away, or whatever his hobby may be? This has torn a once very close family apart.

There is — or was — a rather large amount of money in our mom’s portfolio. Mom always kept us in the loop. She hasn’t shown us anything in the last year or so, including bank statements, etc. She won’t even talk about it with us without telling my brother. 

Financially, I’m good. I own two homes, will be retiring, and made some good investments. But I can’t help but feel my brother is going to screw us. What are your thoughts on this? 

Feeling Slighted

Dear Slighted,

Let us not condemn your brother for working and living his life.

I wonder how close you really were as a family if you believe his sons to be worthless. While you see an asset that should be sold and distributed after your mother’s death, your brother — and perhaps the rules of the family trust — define it as a home as long as he and/or a family member chooses to live there.

If that is the case, your brother has a life estate, meaning he can live there and maintain the property for the remainder of his life. It’s typically a clause included in an estate plan for the benefit of a second wife/husband or stepfather/stepmother. 

This column receives many letters from children who believe they are entitled to an inheritance or a home or simply regard it as their property, even though it belongs to their mother or father.

It may give your mother great pleasure to have her grandchildren and son living with her. It’s impossible for me to know what’s going on inside another person’s family or home — and I have outlined many red flags of elder financial abuse in previous columns — but just because a parent refuses to disclose their financial information does not mean they are victims of abuse.

‘Just because a parent refuses to disclose their financial information does not mean they are victims of abuse.’

Your use of the word “slighted” suggests there is more to this than your brother, your mother and her home. You are financially independent, as you say, and you are in no immediate need of an inheritance — and, no doubt, hope your mother has a long and comfortable life, especially in her last years.

But the closeness of your mother and brother and their arrangement may be triggering for you, opening old wounds from a family that perhaps favored or appeared to favor one child over another. I’m guessing this isn’t the first time you have felt this way.

The best way to ensure that your mother is being taken care of and not experiencing any undue influence from your brother to dip into her finances is to become more involved in her life without wanting anything in return, and even offer to hold a family meeting to help with her estate planning. Her resistance is understandable, if she feels under duress from her other children to bend to their will.

Sure, your brother has a sweet deal. But pointing the finger at one family member does not negate the self-interest of another.

Different children, even in adulthood, have different needs.

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