My Mother-in-Law Hasn’t Saved for Retirement. Are We On the Hook?

My Mother-in-Law Hasn’t Saved for Retirement. Are We On the Hook?

My mother-in-law is in her 50s and has worked as a horse trainer her whole life. She doesn’t own property and instead rents a house at the barn where she trains. She has no assets or retirement plan and is getting to the point where doing the job is becoming more difficult for her physically. My husband has tried to talk to her about her fiscal future, and she shuts these conversations down; she likes to talk about “someday” winning the lottery and buying her own place.

My parents, meanwhile, have invested in their retirements and are financially secure. Generationally, my family has made it a priority (and has been privileged to consider) that parents shouldn’t be a financial burden on their children. They believe that aging parents should rely on their children only for emotional care, i.e., helping to facilitate spending time with grandchildren.

I can’t help comparing my mother-in-law’s attitude with my family’s and consider her choices selfish. My husband and I are the only financially stable family members on his side, and every time my mother-in-law makes a comment about plans that would require a miracle windfall, I get anxious and frustrated thinking about how that financial burden will likely fall on us when she inevitably can’t work any longer.

To be clear, she has never even hinted that she expects us to care for her. But we don’t see what other options she has, so it feels as if she has her head in the sand.

Do we have a right to know what her plans are or make sure she has a plan? If she won’t discuss them with us, does that absolve us of the future responsibility? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

It sounds as if her reluctance to discuss the future reflects a reluctance to face up to her bleak financial prospects. Such procrastination isn’t unusual. In fact, it also sounds as if you and your husband may have put off making a serious attempt to figure things out with her — that the situation gained urgency only after her physical difficulties became evident. At this late date, though, what do you think she should be doing? Given her job history, is she going to be able to earn a lot more doing something else? No doubt she should have put away money over the years — perhaps, in the usual way, by making payments on property — but she can’t do so retroactively.

Still, there are better and worse ways of playing a bad hand. That’s a reason to offer to pay for her to see a financial planner now. Assuming her employer paid FICA taxes, Social Security payments would be in the offing. If a physical condition prevents her from working, would she qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance? Should she take her regular Social Security benefits at the earliest eligibility (currently age 62) or wait longer? Are there catch-up contributions she can make to a retirement account? Are there employment possibilities that aren’t so physically demanding? What public assistance (e.g., SNAP) might be available, given the eligibility thresholds? Those are the sort of issues that an expert could hash out with her. But your mother-in-law is more likely to be open to this if your husband makes the proposal in a positive spirit, stressing his desire to help her navigate the shoals ahead.

Does her refusal to talk about her dire situation absolve you from all responsibility? Your anxiety makes it clear that you don’t think it does. You and your husband needn’t compromise your own financial security, but if she finds herself in straitened circumstances, you’re going to want to help out, even if in a limited way. Your own family’s ethic of independence is admirable, but a history of improvidence can’t be undone; comparisons here aren’t so much odious as pointless. Facing reality — for you as for your mother-in-law — means looking ahead.

The previous question was from a reader who was concerned her son was excluding a boy from his friend group. She wrote: “Our son plays with a group of children, ages 5 to 12, on our block. One boy is regularly excluded. He doesn’t play well with others, is verbally and physically aggressive and, I’ll admit as a parent, a pretty annoying kid. We recently found out that his father died years ago and his mother recently passed away. He moved here to live with his aunt along with two older siblings. We’ve tried being friendly with the aunt, but she is too overwhelmed with her new situation. We’ve explained to our son that he must include the boy, no questions asked, but the message fails to register with him, given peer pressure from a group that has already exiled the new kid. How do we navigate this awful situation? Do we have a conversation with the other parents so we’re on the same page, or is that gossiping? Most important, are we raising a jerk who has no empathy?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “I admire your concern for this unfortunate boy; I also wonder why you think you can simply dictate a solution. You’ve told your son that he “must include the boy” in the group play you describe — “no questions asked.” So let me ask the questions. How would he do this? Unless he has remarkable power of charisma such that he can bend others to his will, he can’t make a decision for the group. All he can do on his own is to withdraw from it and devote himself grimly to your mission. How will that turn out? Kids aren’t always good at feigning friendly feelings. … And children who have been raised to be wary of aggression may well avoid those who exhibit it. That’s how “pro-social” norms perpetuate themselves: untoward aggression is penalized through social sanction, which is the main instrument these kids have at their disposal. By all means, talk to the other parents about asking their children to cut the new boy some slack. He’s clearly caught up in anguishing circumstances. It could be that, in the course of conversation and encouragement, the group’s norms can be shifted. But while you wonder if your child is a “jerk with no empathy,” you don’t seem to have taken the time to put yourself in his shoes. If you want to teach your child empathy, you might try to show more empathy for him. (Reread the full question and answer here.)

The Ethicist’s answer was pragmatic and shifted the letter writer’s perspective. Another way to shift her point of view would be to ask, “Would you encourage your daughter to put up with a physically and verbally aggressive boy?” Kate

I really liked the Ethicist’s response as it highlighted two things for me: One is how little control parents have on children’s group dynamics, and two is that understanding where our children come from may help with positively influencing those dynamics. The letter writer should first connect with her son and ask open-ended and candid questions before trying to intervene. The excluded boy’s aunt was overlooked in the response. If she is overwhelmed, and she certainly should be, why not offer tangible ways to help? Being friendly may just be too much right now for someone adapting suddenly to parenting three children. Drop a casserole for dinner, or offer to carpool kids to school one morning just so that she can catch her breath. This may help create a positive relationship supportive of any child-centric conversations down the line. Anaïs

As an educator, I encounter situations similar to this one quite often. Somehow, we have decided to make children responsible for the mental health of other children. The Ethicist’s response underlining the social sanction strategy is spot on. I’d suggest another. While privacy laws may prevent the school from talking to the letter writer about the child in question, there is nothing to prevent her from relaying the situation to the child’s school counselor. The counselor may make a referral to help the child, and perhaps even the aunt. Lisa

As a former playground monitor, I saw children being excluded and ostracized as early as kindergarten. Unless an adult was nearby, the excluding kids were verbally hostile, cruel and bullying to the shunned child. It’s no wonder the child would “strike back” verbally and physically. And there were times the group goaded the kid deliberately, setting up the situation so that the shunned child was “caught” and got in trouble. One adult cannot stop a group of children from expertly bullying another child and adults tend to listen to a group vs one child. I found if I could get one child away from the group and start a one-on-one conversation between just the two, the “aggressive” child had no need to be defensive. What parents and their kids are assuming is “bad behavior” is more likely to be “self-defense.” A child who has been repeatedly hurt builds walls to forestall more hurt. The letter writer should ask herself, and then her child, how they’d feel to lose both parents and their home. The children’s world has imploded and the hurt they’re feeling is unimaginable. I might suggest the aunt take them to grief counseling. Emme

I agree with the Ethicist that the letter writer is showing a lack of empathy with her own child. However, I would also affirm more strongly that regularly working at including the outcast more is an admirable goal. Isolating socially awkward and potentially violent individuals rarely improves their mental state. In contrast, being brought into community, if possible, can have a strong positive effect. One possible approach would be to set boundaries which explicitly tie bad behavior to consequences, such as, “Wanna play tag with us? You can play as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” In that way, isolation is tied to behaviors rather than to the whole person. Thinking back on my own childhood, as someone who was neither socially popular nor a clear outcast, I was careful not to associate with true outcasts, knowing that if I did, I would end up moving into the outcast category. The letter writer’s son could be in a similar state, in which case his social power is limited. In such a position, I don’t think failing to actively advocate for inclusion is unethical, but neither is it admirable behavior. In my current life, I aspire to move toward greater inclusion. Mike

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