The Moneyist: My father-in-law gave me his late mother’s car to drive. It’s now in my name. How do I sell it — without hurting his feelings?

United States

Dear Moneyist,

My wife’s grandmother passed away about 4 years ago. When my wife moved back to our hometown she was given her grandmother’s car by her father as she did not have one at the time, and needed it to get around.

When we moved in together, her father was adamant about putting the car into one of our names, as he did not want to pay the taxes, insurance, etc. on the car. It has been in MY name (not my wife’s name) for over 2 years now.

We have paid to have it repaired after minor accidents, replaced the battery, gotten a new title, paid the taxes, and roughly 2 years of insurance premiums. Roughly about $ 5,000 in total payments (excluding gas, oil changes, etc.).

‘I have a new job that requires a long commute and I don’t want to worry about whether or not I will be able to make it to or from work in the dead of winter.’

Here’s where I’m stuck: My father-in-law is extremely attached emotionally to the car, because it belonged to his mother. That said, my wife and I are expecting our first child in roughly 3 months, and we are able to afford to get her a new car with a 0% interest rate. I am still using her grandmother’s car as my main mode of transportation.

However, the car is currently 11 years old. It has fairly good mileage, but no 4-wheel drive (we live in an area with frequent snow). I have a new job that requires a long commute and I don’t want to worry about whether or not I will be able to make it to or from work in the dead of winter.

I would love to use the car for trade-in value, and not have to be out of pocket completely for a second car. But I know this will cause him to become extremely upset to see the car “leave the family.”

So how do I get his permission to sell the car that’s legally mine — without upsetting his feelings?

The Son-in-Law

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Dear Son-in-Law,

Asking how to tell your father-in-law that you want and/or need to sell a car that holds deep sentimental value without hurting his feelings is a bit like asking how to drop a china plate without breaking it. If the car means as much to him as you say and he gave you the title to help you with insurance and upkeep, it seems unlikely that you could sell it without hurting his feelings. If you and your wife explain the economics and reasons, he may understand that it’s the best option, one that even his late mother may support.

‘Asking how to tell your father-in-law that you want to sell this car without hurting his feelings is like asking how to drop a china plate without breaking it.’

Given that he gave you this car for free, I would favor you giving it back to him and/or asking him to make the decision on whether or not you should sell it, or even suggest buying the car from him for a nominal fee. Asking him to buy a car back from you that he gave to you for free would seem like an ungracious act. He was doing you the favor. If he had sold you the car, that would be different; in that case, you could politely tell him that you were intending to trade up.

He gave you this car to help you out and, while it’s legally your property now, it appears that the understanding was that you got to drive this car as a favor. The fact that you spent $ 5,000 on the upkeep of a car that you would not otherwise have had the use of, and had the privilege of driving is, neither here nor there. You would have spent that money on a car of similar make and age if you had purchased one. I am, however, glad that you excluded the cost of gasoline and oil changes from your calculations. That’s a small mercy!

Your best bet: Involving your father-in-law in the decision, and pointing out that it’s a safety and reliability issue may be enough to persuade him to let it go.

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