I borrowed cash from Dad to care for my dying mom. Now he's demanding payback.

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 12 2010 6:48 AM

No Debt of Gratitude

I borrowed cash from Dad to care for my dying mom. Now he's demanding payback.

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Dear Prudie,
At the age of 21, I dropped out of college midway through my senior year to take care of my ailing mother. My father continued to work while I cared for her day in and day out for two and a half years. I borrowed $4,500 from my father to pay for my expenses during that time. After she passed away, my father collected her life insurance money and began receiving a hefty pension from her state job. Imagine my surprise when I not only received nothing from her life insurance money but was also presented with the bill for the money I borrowed! It's been more than a year now, and while I have not paid any of the money back, he never fails to bring up the fact that I "owe" him. Should I just pay the money and keep quiet, or should I present him with my own bill for the two and a half years of my life that I gave up?

—Missing Mom

Dear Missing,
Your father must be very confident that he's going to live robustly and just about forever, because it's hard to imagine your working up much interest in caring for him when he's ailing. It's too bad you didn't get more clarity during your mother's illness about how you would be supported while you put your life on hold to help ease the end of hers. Your father is not only cheap; he's cruel. It sounds as if you didn't know that about him, but presenting you with a bill for the meager living expenses he "loaned" you while caring for your dying mother is pretty irrefutable evidence. You need to have a conversation, preferably not a confrontation, with him about what's happened. Explain to him that it was worth it to you to put your education aside temporarily to help your mother. Say you're sure it would pain her to know that her illness has come between you. Tell him you should have asked directly for money to live on while you nursed your mother, but that he never could have gotten anyone to put in two and a half years of work for the $4,500 you "borrowed," and you are deeply hurt and shaken that he is asking for it back. Acknowledge that her life insurance and pension go to him, but you think your mother would have wanted some portion of it to help you get started in life. I hope that by now you have finished your degree. If not, please do so. And know that however your father responds, the best tribute you can make to your mother's memory is to go forward and have a full and satisfying life.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are both in our mid-20s. My husband is an only child, and his parents gave him a gift of a generous amount of money for the down payment on our home. His parents, who live overseas, have decided they want to move to the United States. They have also decided to move into our home instead of getting their own place. After I had time to think it through and come to terms with the idea of living with my in-laws, who are in their early 50s, they dropped another bomb. They wish to move into the master bedroom—and my husband has agreed to it! I know that they have paid off more than half the cost of the house for us, but I'm at a loss for what to do. I don't want to feel like a teenager again, living in my parents' house. I love my husband and in-laws dearly and don't want to hurt them, but the idea of it becoming "their" home rather than "ours" is very upsetting to me. Am I being too sensitive over a room?

—Wife Without a Home

Dear Wife,
I understand that in some places it is family tradition for the generations to live together and the parents to get the most palatial bedroom. Britain's Prince Charles and Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito both live in compounds with their parents—and in both cases these living arrangements helped lead to the daughter-in-law losing her mind. I don't care if your in-laws paid for the entire house and opened an account for you at Restoration Hardware to furnish it. It was a gift, and it's your house. The idea of you permanently moving into the guest room so that your fiftysomething in-laws (who could be around for another 30-plus years) can have the master bedroom is enough to make any daughter-in-law suffer from an "adjustment disorder," as Crown Princess Masako is said to. Go along with this, and you run the risk of dropping a bomb on your husband in the form of divorce papers. Have a frank discussion in which you say you love him and your in-laws, but you would prefer to sell the house and move somewhere smaller than live with them. Say moving in together will be bad for your relations with them and disastrous for your marriage. And insist this be cleared up before Mom and Dad get on the plane and show up at "their" house.