My family was never wealthy, but for my entire life we’ve been more than comfortable–comfortable enough to not pay close attention to our spending. While we never took lavish vacations (unless paid for by points acquired through my father’s work), we didn’t budget. We should have.
As an adult with my own job and an understanding of the value of a dollar (and my motto – no matter how much you make, every cent counts), I’ve managed to build up a networth of over $650k, give or take, at age 35. I want to be proud of that. I want to enjoy this as some sort of accomplishment. But I can’t. I can’t because I feel incredibly guilty and lost when it comes to helping my mother out of the financial mess she is in right now.
Some may look at her situation and say it’s not that bad. I guess it isn’t, but it will be soon if she doesn’t plug up the holes in her sinking ship. Not all of the holes are her fault–but she’s just so delusional and has no ability to stop spending. It is impossible for me to advise her beyond subtle suggestion that she cease spending when my parents paid for my college education, a nice wedding, and an overall nice life. Part of me feels like I ought to help her out and provide the funds to plug up some of those holes. And–most of me knows that even if I were to give her my entire $650k, she’d still find a way to burn through it.
This is a long story… a very long story… and one that is keeping me up at 2am with a newborn who is sleeping so I really ought to be sleeping. I can’t sleep. I can’t do anything but let my mind spin on this giant dilemma, trying to find some sort of solution to the puzzle. There isn’t one that’s pretty or that my mother will agree to. But, after sitting back and letting my recently-deceased father make a mess of the finances in his last years of life (not that I had much say in that, but I could have maybe done something… more on that in a minute)… I feel like NOW I have the opportunity to stop this sinking ship before it reaches the bottom of the ocean.
The picture was looking rather unfortunate on the first go-round of budget vs income that I quickly ran after my father passed away this summer and my mother had to make some decisions about her social security survivor’s benefits (which are confusing as hell, yet to be fully understood, and the subject of another post I’ll write one day.)
As we did more digging, we uncovered that in 2014 there was $1M in an IRA. By 2017, only $400k remained. During that time, there was the purchase of a second home which cost, including renovations, about $100k (or maybe more because my parents seemed to always underestimate the cost of their renovations and not keep tab.) There was my wedding, which, at $50k, was a lovely affair and something that made my dying father beam with joy, but was an event that never should have happened given the financial situation my father either somehow didn’t understand or hid from me and the family. He said, over and over again, he had $50k set aside for my wedding and $50k for my sister’s. He said many things. I’ll never know if he was delusional due to the cancer drugs, unrelated mental illness, old age, or maybe just a serial liar–to not only us but himself.
When he was working he was bringing in good money, at least for a middle class household. Ironically the man who left his family without a stable retirement spent his life’s work as an actuary–planning pensions for companies and accessing risk of running out of money to fund those pensions. I try to find humor in this.
But then, and I guess I didn’t realize this since I was already away at college, he stopped working around age 55 due to his obesity and mobility issues, and then shortly after that began collecting disability. His work paid out nicely for a few years, and also offered a good pension, but the reality was (and where I was blind sighted is) that the amount coming in did not cover the amount spent. I don’t know the exact gap, but it was substantial, and ignored.
Although the wedding was a big expense and the second home purchase wasn’t for pennies, what really did them in, based on my research into the last 10 years of spending, was their crazy high expenses. My mother, ever in denial, would say she doesn’t spend like rich people do, then come home with piles of clothes “on sale” from Chicos or some “non luxury” store, not to mention a pile of face creams on auto-purchase from QVC and who knows what else. Then, there was the dining out bills, and the $600-a-month house cleaning services (I’ve convinced her to drop that to 2x at $300 a month.)
I’m not one to judge how they spent their money — they had a right to spend it any way they wanted. And I understand my father, facing certain death, wanted to enjoy his limited wealth in his final years. It was just the perfect storm of financial chaos. Even his long term care policy, dutifully paid into for many years, likely costing over $20,000, ended up going unused because he refused to admit he was dying–or, perhaps because he realized that the policy didn’t actually cover enough to not require dipping further into the shrinking retirement savings left.
With this, I’m left to wonder if my father, as ill as he was, didn’t go to doctors outside of his cancer doctor because he hated going to the doctor–or, if part of this was because he couldn’t afford the treatment. In the end it wasn’t the cancer that killed him, but issues with his heart and blood pressure–perhaps related to his cancer treatments, but undoubtedly something he could have had treated better over his life and especially those final years… but he chose to only focus on his cancer. If his goal was to die of something other than cancer, then he succeeded. I’m pretty sure his goal was to live forever and he couldn’t think of the world any other way. I get that, no one wants to admit they’re dying–but when you are facing a terminal illness and are told you have 2 years to live (and then you manage to live more than 10) at the very least you can pick out a funeral plot and prepay for a burial, not leaving your wife to run around to cemeteries the day after you die to pay the highest possible amount for both of your graves (yes, this happened. Yes, I was out-of-my-mind with a one-week-old at this time, trying to provide advice.)
But now–now the biggest issue, and the one I find saddest–is that we’ve uncovered a horrible situation regarding taxes. Taxes unfiled and unpaid. All of the numbers I’ve been running to try to save her primary home in the northeast–which, while worth $500k, has a $200k home equity loan out on it, by the way–were thrown out the window. And I threw my hands in the air. I give up. This is looking bleak. Sure, she can cut all of her spending. She can stop the house cleaning services and limit work on the house to only vital fixes for a while… nothing cosmetic. But even then, she starts dipping into that small $400k IRA immediately–which shrinks to almost nothing after the taxes are paid, and she has nothing left to pay the home equity that comes due in 2020 and flips to principle and interest at 3x what she’s currently paying.
In short, the only real answer is to sell one of the properties, and sooner than either of us would like. I’ve told her clearly that the northeast home, while a place that holds all of my memories as a child, and one I’d love to keep, is a complete money suck and sadly I think it needs to go. She agrees, but wants years to clean it out (she’s a hoarder and my attempts to help her get rid of things on my last visit, outside of taking care of a 3 month old, did not make a lot of progress.) I selfishly want the house to stick around for a while too–although it won’t be the home for my “dream” visits with my family… holiday visits to grandma and grandma — long summer nights with my kid(s) playing in the backyard through the sprinklers, running after fireflies like I did as a child–I thought maybe a smidgen of this could exist.
I know a house is just home and a home is just a house. I’ve lived enough places since leaving that house now… gasp… 18 years ago. I mean, I knew, deep down, we couldn’t hold on to it forever. Mom would move out when dad died at some point. But either time went by too fast or I didn’t think it would be this soon. She clearly wants to stay there… but it’s not possible, especially not with the vacation home as well.
She could potentially sell the vacation home, which would pay off some of the home equity. But she doesn’t want to do that, and I think it wouldn’t be wise anyway–they invested quite a bit in renovating that property and, while it’s small, it is a good place for her to live in her “young” old age. Even though some of her friends still live in our development in the northeast, many are moving away, and few still go to the social gatherings she goes to–whereas the 55+ community with the vacation home is filled with active seniors, at least in the winter months. I’m worried about how she’ll like it there in the summer when it gets extremely hot with violent storms and most of the residents leave to the north–but maybe she’ll be ok. She seems to find people to talk to wherever she goes (or talk “at”, but to her there’s no difference and she’s pleased either way.) So, the financial planner in me says — get her out of the northeast home as fast as possible. Like, yesterday fast.
But she’s committed to not moving until at least 2020, and she still thinks she can make it there much longer. She keeps asking me how long she can stay and I try to explain to her that there’s no exact number because the question becomes how much she needs left in her IRA to grow to afford her lifestyle–AND what is going to happen to her later in life if she needs long term care (since my father cancelled her long term care policy years ago saying it was too expensive.)
Now, she does have an after-tax income of $60k+ per year once she gets full social security benefits. That’s pretty darned good. If she had one home, especially one home that doesn’t cost as much as one with a lot of property and an aging architecture, then maybe she’ll be fine. She can sell the house, pay off the home equity, take the remaining $250k or so to pay off the taxes (est $80k) and family loan ($30k), and then take the remaining $150k and, ideally, invest that somewhere safe, while slowly drawing down the IRA and minimizing tax damage in the future.
She could, alternately, sell the vacation condo and put that money into the northeast home, but the costs are just too high there and she’ll still run out of money. I think with the vacation home she can actually live on her income, even if she wants to travel to visit her grandson or spend some time in NY.
The problem is, the longer she stays in the NJ home, the harder it is to ensure her life when she moves is financially ok. What I don’t want to happen is that she burns through her IRA in a few years because of credit card bills and loans and having to pay this ridiculous amount of taxes that sadly are just so high because of penalties due to my father not filing (yes, getting to that in a minute)…
So the taxes… I really don’t know what happened. My father always, ALWAYS paid the right amount each year. He didn’t always file on time–but if you pay the right amount and don’t file the IRS doesn’t actually care. Somehow, whether on purpose or by massive mistake, he was short about $23k one year and $18k the next. The $42k in taxes owed is crappy, but the penalties on that because it was never fixed are what is extraordinarily sad. For that money, not only did he take too much out of the IRA in two years to cause such high taxes owed, but he ALSO then didn’t pay those taxes or file or anything. I want to ask him WHY? But I can’t. Because, you know, he died. And I’m still dealing with processing that and all these feelings I have around wanting to empathize with him for being such a sad, sick man but also then being angry and grateful and who knows what else–is why I can’t sleep.
I’m now looking at any tax relief available to my mother, but it seems unlikely she will get any help from the IRS. Innocent Spouse theoretically applies to her–my father was abusive to her for years and refused to let her partake in household finances, even when she offered, and later, begged–especially regarding the taxes. He would yell at her and occasionally become violent. There are even police records of this (though not in the years the taxes are owed.) But “innocent spouse,” as far as I can tell, is for partners who lied on their returns. Well, he didn’t file a return, so there’s not much innocent spouse we can claim…
Now there is an abatement of penalty clause where, if you were in good standing the 3 years before the year you failed to file, you can get the penalties waived for that one year. But you only get to do this once. Not only was my father failing to file year after year (always having paid the full amount on time except apparently in 2011 when he had a small payment plan), it’s impossible to know if he already requested this one time penalty abatement. There are no records. He did all of his own taxes. My mother is perplexed–after going through all the of the papers… she says to me, it doesn’t make sense–where are all the taxes? The papers from the IRS?
My theory is he, either strategically or in a rage or in a fit of paranoia, threw them all out one day. Maybe he just straight up lost his mind and got rid of a box of important things by accident. Maybe he realized he did that and was so ashamed he just gave up on ever doing the taxes. Who knows.
One thing is for sure – he refused help–even from his few close friends and his family. And, for a man who said he wanted to leave his family with wealth and ensure his wife was financially ok for the rest of her life (which never made sense to me given how emotionally abusive to her on a daily basis) he sure made quite the mess. He just couldn’t admit he was struggling. He had way too much pride. And, in his final years, he didn’t want to accept his mortality. He told my mother she was overspending, but then he’d overspend himself. He once asked my mother how much my aunt and uncle gave me for my wedding — $500. He immediately wrote out a check to their daughter for $600! It wasn’t about generosity with him, though he’d like you to think it was. It was always about showing off how generous he was.
Even during the year of my wedding–I offered to pay for more of the wedding up front, even if he wanted to pay, so he wouldn’t have to withdraw so much out of his IRA that year. I knew the taxes would be high. No, he said. He was offended by the suggestion. He had the money and he wanted to spend it. Yes, I have guilt for spending it, but I didn’t know how bad things looked. Last I heard there was still $1M in the bank and a home that was paid off. I failed to dig in too much–but as blind as I was with eyes shut to the downfall of the great American dream, my mother seemed to have clawed her eyes out in order to be incapable of looking.
So now what? I have my own life to sort out here. I’m doing well, but have a long way to go. My first batch of RSUs vest in a few weeks… and with that I should have a $50k bonus after tax (should the stock market not completely disintegrate before Christmas) and I could say, you know what, mom, you guys paid for my college and wedding, and now I’m gifting you $50k (or, $15k in 2018 and $15k in 2019 and so on.) But what good would that really do? She needs to understand the value of money. I think I’m starting to get through to her a little bit. I paid for dinner the other night and she actually said thank you. It’s not that I want her to have to thank me – it’s that I want her to realize the value of a dollar. It may be too late to fix this mess… but maybe it isn’t. Maybe I can gift her a happy next however many years she has… for as narcissistic and childish as my mother is, I still think she’s been beaten down by an emotionally abusive mother then an emotionally and physically abusive husband, and she deserves the right to happiness in her old age. She has to throw out the clutter and really be wiling to simplify… and that would be good for all of us.
I just don’t know if I can convince her of this in time, and also let go from my crazy ideas to “save” my childhood home by either purchasing it or providing enough money in gift form to pay off the home equity or… plenty of bad ideas that not only wouldn’t help stop the bleeding, but also could financially ruin me as well. So I hope we can all make the right decisions and fast enough to stabilize and move on from this challenging period of our lives.