The Adult Child Who Stayed Home

I have handled many cases involving an adult child who stayed home, or came back home, and cared for the elderly parent. Often, that child receives a larger inheritance share that the other children, and sometimes also receives of lifetime gifts. That situation often leads to litigation.

I find these cases fascinating both from a psychological perspective. The child who stayed home always feels that they are entitled to receive more than the other children. They make the argument that they sacrificed career and social alternatives, and provided care for the elderly parent without pay.

The other children, who raised families and pursued careers, argue that the child who stayed home was a freeloader, and did not provide good care. They argue that the motivation for the child staying home or moving back in was not out of devotion to the parent, but was instead the attraction of free room and board. These other children generally went on to raise families and have careers.

There is a lot of stuff going on, psychologically and emotionally, in these cases.

On the side of the “stay-at-home” child: Taking care of an elderly parent is hard work. Cooking and cleaning for someone, helping them go to the bathroom, helping them bathe, and all the other services involved in taking care of an elder, is hard work. It can be hard physically. Is also difficult psychologically and emotionally when the “patient” is your parent. It is difficult to watch a loved one deteriorate, physically and mentally. The parent usually would rather have a family member, rather than a stranger, provide these intimate services. And the 24 hour care provided would be very expensive if the parent had to pay for it.

On the side of the other children: In most of these cases, the estate plan gets changed to leave the vast majority of the property (usually the family residence) to the “stay-at-home” child. Sometimes, the reason advanced is gratitude for the care provided. Sometimes, the reason advanced is that the “stay-at-home” child needs more financial support than the other children. To the other children, this feels like they are being punished for being financially successful. No matter what we say, money is a way of keeping score. To the child that receives less, it feels like someone is saying that Mom did not love them as much.

Unfortunately, in many of these cases we also see questionable financial transactions during the parent’s life. In addition to providing room and board for the “stay-at-home” child, financial transfers to the “stay-at-home” child begin to occur, often in increasingly larger amounts over time. These lifetime transfers often add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another psychological factor is that people hate to move. When the parent dies, the stay at home child is faced with a wrenching change in their life situation. They no longer have a means of support. The house might have to be sold, and they will have to move somewhere else. They often have little or no career options. They are scared for their financial future. In addition, they are now engaged in litigation with their siblings which threatens to take away all of their anticipated inheritance. As you can imagine, emotions run high.

The legal side: The legal issues involved include the mental capacity of the parent, and whether there was undue influence involved. One of the most telling factors is these cases is whether the changes in the estate plan, and the financial transfers, were done with the knowledge or involvement of an attorney. If so, the attorney will be able to relate what the late parent told them about why they were favoring the “stay-at-home” child. But, often the “stay-at-home” child isolates the parent from the other children and does not get an attorney involved until after the parent dies.

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