I am a 75-year-old mom of two grown children. My son has for years borrowed endless amounts of money. Each and every time I bring up repayment or a payment plan, it always ends up in a terrible situation. Ten years ago, he and his wife signed an IOU letter; now, he tells me his wife has nothing to do with the loans, and I should never even mention the letter to her.
In order to be fair to my other child, in my will I have subtracted all the loans from my son’s inheritance, but I feel so guilty doing this because his wife got all the benefit of his inheritance. Will she share hers with him? It’s obvious to me that she will not. Should I put a lien on their home? When this came up in one of our unpleasant discussions, I was told that if I were to do such a thing, I would never see them, including my grandchild, of course. When I suggested monthly payments or even a payment every other month, they said they can’t do this, as it would cut into their living standards.
I feel so sad and stupid for having fallen victim to my own son. At this point, I am afraid to even mention money around him or else I will be told to just sell all I have and rent a place. I feel so angry and sad when I hear him and his wife telling me this, because I don’t want to rent. If they would just make monthly payments for the rest of my life, I would be just fine. I am embarrassed to talk to anyone about this; I am smart enough to hang up on the scammers on the phone but never smart enough for him.
Thank you so much.
A Too Generous Mother
Dear Too Generous Mother,
First of all, you should forgive yourself for falling victim to your son. As mothers, we’re hard-wired to love and trust our children and to give them what they need. And sometimes the line between need and desire isn’t always evident until it’s been crossed, and we see it clearly only in hindsight. So let this burden go. It’s better to err on the side of generosity and trust with family.
Now it’s indeed a sad thing that your family bonds are being torn apart over money, so I’m not saying you shouldn’t have or acknowledge feelings of sadness. And, of course, it isn’t right for your grown son to borrow money and not pay it back, so there’s also an issue of injustice here that needs to be resolved.
There’s an important choice you can make to bring about a resolution: You can either pursue repayment through legal means (assuming, of course, this is available—please find someone knowledgeable and trustworthy to advise you), or forgive the debts.
The advantage of the first choice is clear—you (may) get what is owed to you and continue to live well in your house. The disadvantage is that money disputes can sour family relations, so you may not see your grandchild again for a very long time—possibly ever.
If you pursue the legal route, consider carefully how strong your legal case is. Even if you aren’t successful, any kind of legal battle will bring out the worst in both of you and could irreparably harm your relationship, so you could end up without money and without family. Another big downside is the psychological difficulty of legal fights. This kind of stress could very well cause your physical health to deteriorate.
The advantage of the second choice is that you can free your family from this dispute and start to rebuild and repair your relationships. What if you consider that your son has already received his inheritance (and make sure your will reflects this), and you forgive him, yourself, and the loan? This will leave you mentally and emotionally free—with more peace, energy, and love for life—and you’ll be allowed to see your grandchild.
The disadvantage of forgiving your son’s debts is that you may not be able to keep your house, which I won’t make light of. It’s not easy to leave a place we’ve lived in and loved for years and establish oneself again. And reducing your standard of living may feel upsetting, possibly even shameful. However, it’s a truth in life that we often have to accept some loss in order to gain. And I’d say that there is nobility to be found in living in peace and within your means. A simpler living situation may also leave you with even more freedom and peace than does owning a home.
Now, I hope this second choice wouldn’t leave you destitute, struggling to pay for even the basics, so, again, please consult a financial adviser you can trust. Perhaps your other child could help you navigate this. If you sell your home, make sure you get a good price.
I think your choice ultimately is one of justice versus love and is one of those fundamental choices we all have to face in one way or another. Justice is, of course, an important principle, but always insisting on being right and on receiving our due can leave us cold, alone, bitter, and miserable. So we must temper justice with love and mercy. When we choose to forgive, let go, and move on, new doors will burst open. Often these doors are in our heart—padlocked for years, holding back tremendous love, joy, peace, and contentment.
Choosing love and mercy can also transform the people around you. When they feel your warmth, they change. Your son is now too old for you to lecture and discipline, but he’ll still respond to your genuine warmth. The best outcome I imagine is that if you forgive the loan, it’ll awaken in him a greater sense of honor, and he’ll realize he should pay you back. But, of course, we can’t count on such an outcome, because forgiveness must be completely unconditional.
Whichever choice you make, one worry you can let go of is how your son and his wife spent the loaned money. This is water under the bridge, and there’s nothing you can do or say to change what they did or how they handle money. Perhaps his wife is greedy and frivolous—maybe they both are—but since I don’t know them, I won’t judge. I will say that most women like beautiful and luxurious things—I’m no exception—but we must temper our desires so we can be satisfied with what is well within our family’s means. If we don’t, we can’t really consider ourselves good or honorable. So, in regard to your son’s wife, there are two things to consider: First, if she is greedy, she’ll surely at some point reap what she has sown. Second, greed can be overcome; people can change, learn, grow, repent, do better, and become wiser and more loving. So, as we all hope to become better, let us wish this for her, too.
One of the greatest challenges of motherhood is watching our children make big mistakes, seeing their faults, and not being able to fix things for them like we could when they were small. But just as it is a truth that money sours family relations, so it is that love and warmth can rebuild and repair. And, especially with sons, if they feel loved and, very importantly, respected by their mother, it will bring out the best in them. Now, some people may be thinking, “This son doesn’t deserve respect! Look how he’s treated his mother!” Of course he has done wrong, but—in the same way we must at times choose between justice and love—if we want someone close to us to be more respectable, we can choose to respect them more. In the same way that love begets love, respect can open padlocks to a closed heart, especially to a man’s heart.
I wish you the best of luck with your decision and hope you find peace in your golden years.
As an addendum, my only financial advice is to look into the work of financial adviser and author Dave Ramsey, who might have some suggestions you or I have not thought of. He does suggest never loaning money to family—only giving it with no strings attached.