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My estranged father helped me buy a house. My brother cried foul. Who’s right?

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This has bugged me all my life. My father left my family when I was 7. I’m not sure how much in child support he paid my mother. Soon after I graduated college, he visited me for the first time since he left the family. He told me that he wanted to send me money each month to eventually purchase a house in the U.S. that would belong to the family. He started sending me payments of $1,000 a month to a joint bank account. I felt obligated to inform the rest of my family — my three siblings and my mother.  

‘This happened in 1992 in Los Angeles, and I can just imagine a $150,000 house back then would be worth $1 million today.’

My eldest brother insisted that I should split the $1,000 monthly payments between us, and not tell him, and said that I had no right to buy a house on his behalf. I thought it would be unethical for me to keep accepting his $1,000 monthly payments without informing him that I would be splitting them among the family and not going toward a mortgage. I informed him of my brother’s demands and he promptly stopped sending me the payments.  

Should I have just ignored my brother’s demands, and continued to accept the $1,000 payments and later bought a house on behalf of the entire family? Should I have even informed my family of what my father was doing until after the house was paid and became a family asset? I was pretty young at the time, and didn’t want to cause any unnecessary family friction, but in hindsight, I believe I should have made a stand and told my brother that I was going to continue taking his payments.

I would have purchased a house, and put the house in everyone’s name. After that, they could all debate whether to sell the house and split the value. By the way, this happened in 1992 in Los Angeles, and I can just imagine a $150,000 house back then would be worth $1 million today.

Longstanding Ethical Dilemma

Dear Longstanding,

The agreement was between you and your father. You don’t say whether your father was also the biological father of your siblings. Either way, I do not believe you were obligated to tell the rest of your family that you were receiving this money, given that the money was to be used for the collective good. But I see why you did, and the fact that you did speaks to your sense of duty and your character. 

Your father asked you to put this money into a joint account, so there’s no telling what might have happened to that money in the future. He might have fallen on hard times, he could have had a change of heart, or he may not have had the long-term follow-through with this plan. At best, the nature of generosity was ill-conceived. At worst, his gift could be perceived by harsher critics as manipulative, and unfair to you. 

If it were me? It’s hard to say for sure, but I probably would have done the same thing. I don’t believe anyone should be asked to carry a secret such as that, and even if you were holding that secret voluntarily, I can imagine the burden you must have felt. Research shows that people do keep financial secrets from their family, but that could be anything from a debt and personal loan to their salary (and who could blame them for that).

Putting the best spin on this arrangement: Your father wanted to make amends for being an absent father, and this was one way for him to do this. It was designed to help you and your family and, yes, it also helped your father in that he got to do something good, and alleviate some of the guilt he perhaps felt for leaving his family. That said, asking you to do this for you put a lot of pressure on you, and he probably did not think it through.

‘Your father wanted to make amends for being an absent father, and this was one way for him to do this.’

As to the other part of your question: If your brother did not wish to participate in a property investment, that was their choice, but telling you to stop receiving the gift from your father was, perhaps, crossing a line. Ultimately, that was — as you say — a decision you made. You did not want to go against your brother’s wishes, or maybe you feared angering them and/or alienating your family.

The therapist and author Susan Forward talks about families as “family systems.” That is, a group of people who are conditioned to adhere to group values and rules. We often are not even aware that those strings that pull on our decision-making and behavior exist. Only when we stand back do we often see the ways we have been manipulated or influenced and, as helpfully, the ways we try to influence others.

No family is perfect. “Unhealthy families discourage individual expression,” Forward writes in her book, “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life.” I’m not saying your father was toxic, and I’m not saying your sibling’s actions contained any bad intentions, but your father’s gift has left you with years of regret and confusion over those $1,000 monthly deposits — and what could have been.

“Everyone must conform to the thoughts and actions of the toxic parents,” Forward writes. “They promote fusion, a blurring of personal boundaries, a welding together of family members. On an unconscious level, it is hard for family members to know where one ends and another begins. In their efforts to be close, they often suffocate one another’s individuality.” It’s a tough, if insightful, take on family life.

Let go of what could have been. You made the best decision for yourself and your family at the time. You did not have the advantage of foresight. You are finding your individuality, and your voice, and you can’t put a price on that. Forgive your brother for interfering and pushing you to end this arrangement, and forgive yourself for this 30-year-old decision.

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

My mother excluded me from her will — before she died, my sibling cashed out her annuity policy, on which I was a beneficiary. Should I sue my family?

‘I’m clean and sober’: My late father left me 25% of his estate, and my wealthy brother 75%. My brother died 10 months later. Should I ask his son for his share?

‘It’s still painful’: My wife of just one year left me, took all her belongings and won’t answer her phone. How do I protect my finances?



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