Two weeks ago I wrote about financial loans and gifts to family, especially children. But there’s a bigger gift than money, and that’s letting your adult child move back in with you.
Actually, a grown child moving back in with you might be a favor for him/her, or it might be a favor to you, depending who’s in need. Either way it raises important questions, such as:
What’s the timeframe? Is the arrangement expected to be for a specified period of time, or is it open-ended? If more time than expected turns out to be necessary, will additional adjustments have to be made? And if continuing to live together is simply not a workable option over the long haul, what’s the outside date by which a different arrangement must be made?
Financial questions also arise – too many to enumerate. But in general, both parties should expect to benefit financially – since it’s cheaper to maintain one household than two. The host party should not just be stuck with expenses and inconveniences, while the one moving in gets a free ride – normally some rent should be paid, or if cash is not available, then service (housekeeping, cooking, running errands, etc.) can be offered instead. But then again, if a child (or anyone else) is moving in to help you, then you are benefiting financially by not having to pay for such services, so it might be fair if the one moving in got free room and board.
The tricky thing is that, typically, old issues come into it. All adult families have histories – often ones that involve large sacrifices made, or obligations incurred. If everyone agrees on the nature and scope of these, they can be taken into account. But watch out if people have different memories or are making different assumptions!
You also need to consider the people who aren’t there, especially children besides the one moving in. If you are too generous with one child, it might mean that another child will later have to bail you out. Or if you spend all your savings taking care of one, others may lose their inheritances. By the same token, if one child is helping you out in a substantial way that another child doesn’t, the first child may deserve some special consideration – in your will, perhaps, or in some other way. Or perhaps if one child becomes the caregiver, another child or children could help pay out-of-pocket expenses, so as to make a reasonably fair contribution.
It’s not all about the money, of course, or even all about fairness. Love and duty and sharing are all part of it, too. But these will flourish better where financial and basic living arrangements are established fairly, discussed frankly, and understood clearly.
Even setting aside family history, other dynamics come into play. An adult child is not a kid any longer, and is accustomed to having his or her own life, and making his or her own decisions. Regardless of which party is more independent and which requires more assistance, everyone should enter the situation as the moral equal of the others – yes, even if the needier one helped create his or her own problems. A good living arrangement cannot be based on moral superiority and blaming by one party, and shame and guilt and subservience by the other party. The living relationship must be built on mutual respect. That may require forgiveness first, and if it can’t be given, then it’s better not even to begin the experiment.
Just as the parent(s) should beware of being too parental, the child should beware of being too childlike. The same rule of thumb applies in both directions: treat the other no worse than you would treat a housemate unrelated to you.
This is especially important if the child is still young (recently out of college, for instance). It is too easy for both parties to slip into the old ways. But it is time for such a child to become an adult, and a legitimate even if unequal contributor to the household, both financially and in other ways.
Important: If you are still married (or, even more so, remarried), you need to have a long talk with your spouse or partner before discussing things with the child. Parents often have very different ideas about the overall advisability of having a child move back in – and even if they agree on that, there may be many differences in the financial and other arrangements that they prefer. Talking all of these issues out between the two of you first will help you clarify your own preferences.
Some other practical considerations:
• Check your homeowner’s, health, and auto insurance to make sure that everyone (and everyone’s property) is covered.
• There could be the opportunity for one of you to claim the other as a dependent on your federal and/or state taxes, and save some money.
• If the child is bringing home problems (such as substance abuse, for example) that you are not really equipped to deal with, just say no. Help arrange for a rehabilitation program, or some other alternative. On the other hand, if there are problems that you think you can help manage, then prepare yourself to do so: look for counsel and other outside resources before your child moves in, and prepare to be a caregiver rather than an enabler.
• The situation is much more complex if the child is returning home with a spouse or life partner, and/or with children. Such arrangements can still work out fine, even over long periods of time, but it requires more discussions with more people.
• Whatever agreements everyone comes to, consider putting them in writing (especially the financial arrangements). The purpose is not to bind everyone to a “contract,” but rather to make sure that the initial understanding is clear, and to have a way to settle potential future misunderstandings if memories become fuzzy.
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, or to contact him directly, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com.