Protecting myself and my kids financially from MIL's financial woes

My husband's mom is 69 years old and extremely low income. That's not hyperbole...that's actually the income bracket that she is in on the social services eligibility charts (the lowest bracket). Over the past 2 months she has mentioned several times that she is down to her last $1K in her savings account, and that her monthly SS check (I believe approx $1100/month) is not enough to cover her monthly expenses including $800+ rent. For 7 years, I have been trying to encourage her to get on waiting lists for subsidized low income housing, but she does not want to live in a County or nonprofit-run building, so would only use a housing subsidy if she could get a Section 8 housing choice voucher. The waitlist for Section 8 vouchers in her County is closed because the wait list is too long, and has not been open to new applicants in years. The only way she can cover her expenses is to work part time as a caregiver for some of her senior neighbors. She broke her hip about a year ago and while recovering was unable to work for a short time. My husband and I and my own parents helped buy her groceries, etc. After that, I tried to sign her up for food stamps and for low income housing, but she never followed through with the final paperwork. She lives near us and is great with our 2 young kids who love her. We see her often, and when we do we always pay for her meals or pay her way when we go on vacations together. All this is fine, but what worries me is that she has a structural deficit in her finances, and if anything happens so that she cannot work (or even if she gets too old to work which seems likely to happen while she's in her 70s), she will not be able to afford her monthly expenses. I have asked her repeatedly what her plans are, and have gently prodded her and encouraged her to take advantage of the generous social safety net that she qualifies for. She brushes this off and says she just takes life as it comes. She is currently on a month long vacation driving across country to her hometown. She is traveling with friends and family who presumably will cover her costs. She says she will sign up for food stamps when she returns but not housing. When she returns I am prepared to tell her that I am not going to give her anymore financial assistance until she is living in (or on the waiting list for) subsidized low income housing. But I know that my husband is unable to make that same commitment. In the past she has used emotional manipulation (tearing up cards from him, threats of suicide) to make him feel as if he cannot say no to her, lest she might feel unloved by him. I think the best way to protect my kids and myself financially is to formally separate my finances from my husband's, so that he can give money to the mother he loves if he feels he needs to, but I can say "absolutely not, you cannot touch these pots of money that I have control over". We are moderate income ourselves and live paycheck to paycheck with only very small retirement saved so far. We do not own a house. I'd like to save so that I am not a burden on my own kids. I don't want to be cruel, but want to protect myself. The question is, what is the best way to do this logistically. we have always had joint accounts, so separating seem sounds logistically difficult to impossible. Anyone have advice on how to do this? Thank you!

Parent Replies

New responses are no longer being accepted.

Hello, so sorry to hear about your MIL's situation.  One odd "blessing in disguise": should she ever need assisted living, she'll be eligible for Medicare to cover the costs (extremely high), since she is so low-income.  I hope things get better.

California is a community property state, so you really can't legally separate your finances from your husband's while you are married. Everything you earn, he has a 50 percent interest in. Placing your earnings in a separate bank account won't change that, from a legal perspective. Of course, you could still open a separate account if you think that will help your husband *conceptually* to not dip into certain funds to rescue his mother. 

I think this is primarily a marital problem between you and your husband. His primary allegiance and responsibility should be to you and your children, not enabling his self-destructive mother. He is ignoring your need and your childrens' need for financial responsibility, and that's not okay. His mother is an adult. She needs to be allowed to reach the crisis state that she is creating for herself. That is what she wishes for herself, or she would be making different choices. Your children are not adults and need to be protected and guided by adults acting responsibly and in their best interest. Your husband is neglecting that duty. Have you tried marriage counseling for this issue? Honestly, if I were in this position and it couldn't be resolved through counseling, I would consider divorce to protect my own and my childrens' financial wellbeing. 

So your MIL refused to plan ahead, saying she wants to "take things as they come." But then she turns to emotional manipulation to deal with the consequences of her inaction.

I would consult a family law attorney. You have a compelling need to separate your finances from your husbands, and the only way to get there is with a properly executed marital agreement (a post-nup, if there is such a thing). This will have the added benefit of making it crystal clear to your husband that you personally will not accede to your MIL's manipulation. He can, if he chooses to. After all, he's a grown-up. But if he does, it's on his dime.

Time for tough love all around.

Being married means your finances are mingled. You could divorce, but still live together and still keep the relationship you have now. That would allow you to have completely separate finances. Or you could get a post-nuptial agreement. Either one of those could allow him to say to him mother that he simply doesn't have the money to spend. 

Wow, lots of issues.  Your attempt to set some boundaries is entirely reasonable but you're not dealing with reasonable people. 

You can easily set up an account without your husband's name on it and transfer money into it.  But it's a REALLY short-term solution, not very practical (if something happens to you, how can he access the account?).  He can always find ways to get money to mom (credit cards, etc.) so any sense of security it gives you is bogus.  And California is a community property state--his debts and expenses are yours.

I fear for you just reading this.  Husband who can't say no to mom, even at the cost of his children's welfare?  Mother manipulator who threatens suicide and won't sign up for support she qualifies for?  That is a series of catastrophes waiting to happen.  A separate bank account is just a bandage on the core issues.  Yes, her little games can sink you both financially, it certainly happened in my family.

Your husband needs to get his priorities straight, which probably means therapy and some education on the realities of elder-care; he's only making the problem worse for her.  Yes, you will need to be the hard-ass, which will not be pleasant.  You all need to understand that loving someone doesn't mean enabling.  You probably both need some legal advice, but that's only useful once your husband understands that all he is doing is hurting your kids, not helping his mom.  I recommend you contact Family Caregiver Alliance with this complex issue, and also see if you can get any help from Adult Protective Services or any other senior services for help in convincing mom to wake up and smell the coffee.

If Mom threatens suicide, neither you nor your husband can safely say if this is an empty threat.  Call 911 and/or the police and insist they send someone immediately.  She either needs treatment for self-harm/suicidality or she needs to learn to quit that form of manipulation.

I don't usually say this, but God bless.  Addressing issues like these is incredibly painful, but essential for the health and well-being of your family.

Yikes.  So to boil it down, you are suggesting that you separate from your husband because he wants to help his mom with her living expenses.  Legally, you and he are not obligated to assist her.  But ethically and morally, I think you do.   I would try to be more sympathetic to her.  She suffered a broken hip and loves your two kids.  She's low income but a lot of people around the Bay Area fall into that category.  Perhaps she needs more of your assistance, more than just purchasing the occasional groceries and vacation.  Help her find a less expensive place for her to live.  Help her apply for food stamps and find a part time job.  Perhaps she could move in with you and your husband and help with babysitting and taking care of the house?  What would happen if she were unable to pay her rent and was evicted?  Her son would have no choice but to help her and as his wife, you have to support that.  There is a problem her that needs to be discussed with all of you and work through it.  It's a burden, yes, but one that requires you to do something to help her.

You might want to reframe your MIL's situation a bit. Like many people in the Bay Area, she is low-income. However, she worked enough to get Social Security, and is doing her best to keep working part-time after a serious injury, and at an age most people are retired. From what you say she is also cognitively intact which is not something that can be taken for granted. You also do not mention any indication of substance-abuse, or mental health issues aside from depression. Info on hip fractures: "Women ages 65–69 who break a hip are five times more likely to die within a year than women of the same age who don’t break a hip, according to a Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research study funded by the National Institutes of Health and published online today in the Archives of Internal Medicine."  Another article:

To continue reframing – She and your children have a good relationship, and it seems that most of the time she and your husband have a good relationship. Connection to a grandparent is a protective factor for children. Also, how you behave with her will model for your children how to behave with you when you are elderly.

To move forward from here it might be a good idea to get help from the Family Caregiver's Alliance, or Jewish Family Services (they help people from all cultures – we used them in another state to help with challenging elder-care issues.) Many elders needs hands-on assistance to navigate the complexities of our (not-so-generous) social welfare system. She's facing a number of challenges, and as family, her son does have some obligation to help her work through them.

I have first-hand experience with this. I am the safety net for my mother and my brother, neither of whom have any financial resources at all (my brother, who has just turned 60, won't even qualify for SS because he has been an artist/pot grower his whole life and never reported income.)  Both of them have repeatedly made terrible decisions over a span of many decades.  They really are just incapable of taking care of themselves.  Here's my advice. 1. Don't let this wreck your marriage. Both of you need to join together to figure out a solution because your MIL is probably going to be around for a couple more decades.  2. Do the research and find subsidized housing for her.  If that means she has to move to a different city, figure out how to convince her to do that. When my mom was in her late 60's and practically destitute I heard about a subsidized apt. complex in Berkeley and got her on the waiting list. She was on the list for 3 years before a spot opened, and she didn't want to move to Berkeley, didn't want to live with old people, was a no-show for the interview and had to wait another 6 months for a spot, etc. etc. But she had few other options and eventually agreed. She's been there for 20 years now and loves it. Rent is pegged to a percentage of her SS income, so she can pay all her bills. California Medi-cal is AWESOME. She gets an in-home helper, a cell phone, taxi scrip, good medical insurance. You have to try to get your MIL to the point where she can live on her SS.  3. When they ask for money, here's what I do.  My mother doesn't need me to help anymore, because she can now live within her means, but my brother often needs help. Last year, after I gave him rent money for the second month in a row, I told him I would only help if he signs up for Medi-cal, food stamps, and gets on a list for subsidized housing (he currently lives illegally in a cheap office space near Monterey.) He immediately got the  food stamps and Medi-cal (TG because he had a bicycle accident the next month) but he has been making lame excuses about the housing - they don't answer the phone, it's hard to get to their office, he has to wait a long time, etc. I remind him weekly he needs to do this, and that I will help with rent if he does.  Last week he asked me for a "loan" again, and I told him I'd send him a Safeway card so he can eat but I'm not paying rent until he gets on a list for housing. This is the only thing that motivates him to plan for his future.  BTW I do not recommend handing over cash. Instead pay specific bills directly to the landlord or PG&E, buy Safeway cards, have the phone bill sent to your address, things like that.  It really is in your MIL's best interest to do something like this because she's coming up on a time when there will be more illnesses and she can't work.  You will probably have to do the footwork to figure out what her options are and then take action to get her signed up. 

Best wishes to you.