My brother-in-law has menial jobs, borrows money and lives with his parents. Will I be his “guard” after his parents are gone?

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By Quentin Futrell

“Has little or no savings even though he has lived in the house for about the past ten years.”

Dear Quentin,

I am looking for your advice about a difficult family situation.

I have a brother-in-law, “Mark”, who is financially ineligible and still lives at home with his parents, despite being in his mid-40s. Mark lived in the past alone with a partner, but that relationship ended several years ago. Since then he has lived at home, bouncing from one menial job to another.

He has little or no savings even though he has lived in the house for almost the past ten years. He also does not have credit cards because he has accumulated a lot of debt, and his parents make him get rid of the cards and start paying off the debt.

A few years ago, though, they let Mark buy him a new, expensive car that likely required them to sign off on his loan. As far as I know, many of his bills go to his parents, who then pay him to live in their home. In my opinion, they continue to enable this bad financial behaviour.

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

If my in-laws feel so strongly about his potential condition, I feel they owe it to him to share their thoughts and hope they get him the help he needs to transition to a more independent lifestyle. He has the ability to live on his own and keep a job.

My in-laws are in their early 70’s and will not be around forever to take care of Mark. They are already retired and live on a modest fixed income. Naturally, I worry about what will happen to Mark once they are out of 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 would not be a large inheritance that could be passed on to Mark, and the few money he got would likely be squandered soon after receiving it. I’m afraid it won’t take long before he looks to me and my wife to bail him out of whatever financial predicament he finds himself in.

I have two young children for whom I am making college money — as well as saving for my retirement. Adding another adult to the mix of people I would need to support financially is untenable.

I want to outline my concerns to my in-laws so we can begin to help Mark move on to a better place. However, both his undiagnosed medical condition and estate planning seem to be taboo topics to bring up with them. What guidance can you provide? Am I my sister-in-law’s keeper?

All our futures are concerned about

Dear Anxiety,

You are not legally responsible for your wife’s brother. As I told the author of this letter, do what you can while all parties are still here to help prevent the worst case scenario. But the good news is that there is a lot you can do. In fact, there is a lot we can all do for our family members, neighbors, friends and acquaintances by watching each other. We humans are a tribe.

Your sister’s husband may or may not be autistic, which is a complex and varied diagnosis. Many people with autism live full, independent lives, and yes, many people with autism need support throughout their lives. You can offer this support without viewing it as a zero-sum game of either “I need to support him financially” or “I will never do anything.”

You can help your relatives formulate plans for the future, based on their ancestry. The Autism Society has some guidance: “Financial security for many individuals with autism is dependent on public benefits such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).” The association also notes that a special needs attorney can help families determine whether a person may qualify for government assistance.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, known as Section 8, a federally funded program to help low-income renters afford rent, is also an option. Tenants and landlords work together, with the landlord receiving a subsidy from the Public Housing Authority and the tenant paying the difference. However, these coupons are competitive, and only about a quarter of people who apply end up getting one.

Presented by Michael J. Greenberg, a New York-based senior and estate planning attorney, offers these tips: “Build consensus from other involved siblings or family members. Don’t put off the conversation for too long, and choose a quiet and private time and place. Decide who will bring up the topic and lead the conversation. It’s best to focus on how Your interest in your relatives and offer to research, or assistance in participating in any meetings with financial advisors or attorneys.”

He adds, “Don’t be accusatory during a conversation. If you start with ‘you weren’t planning’ or ‘you enabled it,’ the conversation isn’t going to go well.”

Your relatives may want to set up a special needs trust, because those are not considered income to the government that means probation. This would provide your sister-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 might later regret.

“If Mark’s parents don’t have a lot of money, maybe they could consider using a life insurance policy a second time to fund the trust fund for Mark,” says Greenberg.

Mark has a responsibility here, too. If you and his parents keep lending him or giving him money when he has nothing left at the end of the month, he may be counting on your generosity to bail him out when he makes mistakes. You can help him budget his income and expenses and help him put together a plan to make sure he has enough money each month.

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

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

You can email The Moneyist for any financial or ethical questions at q[email protected] and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter

Check out our Moneyist group on Facebook, where we search for answers to life’s toughest financial problems. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or consider Moneyist’s latest column.

Moneyist regrets that it cannot respond to questions individually.

More from Quentin Futrell:

“Even the thought of finances worries us”: My children are 14 and 16 years old. Is it too late to save for their college education?

“It’s a Mama’s Thing”: My kids are authorized users of my credit cards. They are 25 and 29 years old. Will it hurt their credit scores if I remove them?

“Nehr, you make me cry, don’t you?”: I sold our rent for $325,000. I want to invest money. My wife wants to pay off our mortgage. Who is right?

Quentin Futrell

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