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My Mother-in-Law Hasn’t Saved for Retirement. Are We On the Hook?

My mother-in-law is in her 50s and has worked as a horse trainer her whole life. She doesn’t own property and instead rents a house at the barn where she trains. She has no assets or retirement plan and is getting to the point where doing the job is becoming more difficult for her physically. My husband has tried to talk to her about her fiscal future, and she shuts these conversations down; she likes to talk about “someday” winning the lottery and buying her own place.

My parents, meanwhile, have invested in their retirements and are financially secure. Generationally, my family has made it a priority (and has been privileged to consider) that parents shouldn’t be a financial burden on their children. They believe that aging parents should rely on their children only for emotional care, i.e., helping to facilitate spending time with grandchildren.

I can’t help comparing my mother-in-law’s attitude with my family’s and consider her choices selfish. My husband and I are the only financially stable family members on his side, and every time my mother-in-law makes a comment about plans that would require a miracle windfall, I get anxious and frustrated thinking about how that financial burden will likely fall on us when she inevitably can’t work any longer.

To be clear, she has never even hinted that she expects us to care for her. But we don’t see what other options she has, so it feels as if she has her head in the sand.

Do we have a right to know what her plans are or make sure she has a plan? If she won’t discuss them with us, does that absolve us of the future responsibility? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

It sounds as if her reluctance to discuss the future reflects a reluctance to face up to her bleak financial prospects. Such procrastination isn’t unusual. In fact, it also sounds as if you and your husband may have put off making a serious attempt to figure things out with her — that the situation gained urgency only after her physical difficulties became evident. At this late date, though, what do you think she should be doing? Given her job history, is she going to be able to earn a lot more doing something else? No doubt she should have put away money over the years — perhaps, in the usual way, by making payments on property — but she can’t do so retroactively.

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