The Moneyist: How do I convince my mother and siblings to sell her summer cottage — so she can make important upgrades to her home?

United States

Dear Quentin,

My parents bought a small summer cottage (no heat, no air conditioning) when I was about 15. I’m now 53. The cottage is truly tiny. It is on the water, but it’s only big enough for about four people to be in comfortably so it’s not really a place where the whole family can gather. 

It is paid off, but there are maintenance costs, taxes etc. Mom has been responsible for the cottage since dad died 22 years ago. She recently paid for a large repair, and had to cash out another investment to do it. The costs are a burden with little return, in my opinion. 

I feel that she should sell it, and use the funds to upgrade her primary residence and for the costs of any future caregivers. She is elderly, in declining health, and does not want to move from her primary residence, which has not been adapted for someone with a physical disability.

My two siblings are adamantly opposed to selling the property, my brother in particular. The cottage has gone through periods where it has sat unused for long periods because no one has the time to go or the money to help maintain it. Mom still has to pay taxes, maintenance etc. 

Point of contention 

My siblings both insist that they are ready and willing to pitch in financially, but they never follow through. Maintenance and chores at the cottage are also becoming a point of contention. I don’t want to spend either my time or my money on a cottage I rarely use.

My siblings are also convinced that the six grandchildren are going to start pitching in physically and financially. I think this is unlikely. Four are already adults on tight budgets, and will likely start settling down and starting their own families soon. The other two are in high school. 

Should I stay quiet and watch mom continue to drain her finances on a cottage that she can’t go to by herself anymore just so my siblings have the option to enjoy it when they want? She only goes for one week of the year and maybe a weekend here or there.

Or should I start making more noise to convince my siblings to get mom to sell and use the funds for her own caregiving needs at her primary residence? Who is right? 

Helpless Son

Dear Son,

This property probably means more to your mother than a financial responsibility, or a way to upgrade her home. She could have memories of your father and their early married life with their young children that give her joy, and nourish her every time she steps over the threshold. 

The prospect of returning there — an important ritual for her every year — could also keep her spirits high. It may be a place where she feels completely herself, unburdened by the intervening years, the death of your father and any illness that weakens her body today. 

And you? It is a proxy for your anxieties about your mother’s declining health and your siblings’ apparent fecklessness and — in your eyes, at least — their unwillingness to face up to some hard facts about your mother’s long-term care, and the financial obligations that await your family. 

To your siblings, it’s a safe, familiar place that they like to visit and, yes, rely on your mother’s financial support to keep in working order, and a haven where their children can create childhood memories too; a bridge across generations long after your siblings are gone.

Equally valid positions

All of these perspectives can coexist, and each can be equally valid. I’m not discounting your concerns or saying you do not have cause to talk to your family about your mother’s long-term care, but I believe it’s a mistake to make the summer cottage a cornerstone of your argument.

We know it’s there, and it’s a last resort if your family needs money to pay for a caregiver or other medical bills. But it would be a more productive, and less provocative step to sit down with your mother and, perhaps, a financial adviser to assess her current and future needs.

It would be ideal to do this as a family so your siblings are all on the same page, and no one feels blindsided. You come from a good place, and you raise important questions for family, questions that might make them uncomfortable. Don’t allow the cottage to distract you from that.

One final consideration. This property belongs to your mother. You can’t force her to sell if she has full mental capacity. Pressuring her to give it up and making it the focus of her long-term care plan could understandably bring up questions about her own agency, legal rights and ability to make her own decisions.  

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