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Today’s letter is about money and family and when those things come together in a manipulative and possibly sinister way.
Dear Captain Awkward,
My parents passed away three years ago, leaving my little brother and I in the care of my Uncle and his wife. Their method of raising children is very different from what we were used to. Mom was the type who would say no to something and then explain why and often prompted discussion. Aunt is the type who yells no and glares if you question her.
I was 17 when I moved in with them so they haven’t been able to control me as much as they have my little brother. That said, they do still restrict me a lot. We live in the middle of nowhere so I can’t move around on my own, my phone and internet are regulated, and several times Aunt has snooped on my laptop. ‘My room’ is a free-for-all where her siblings come and go as they will and she often gives my things away because ‘they were getting old.’ I should stand up to them, I know that. But then I think they didn’t have to take us in and I really don’t want to cause any more trouble, so I quiet down again.
This year they’re intending to move to a new, much more expensive house in a very upscale area. Uncle took me aside and said that once I turn 21 this year and get my inheritance, he’s going to need some help, and alarms started going off in my head.
He says the new place will enable me to move around freely, and even get that summer job I’d been begging them to allow me to apply to, but it just feels like he’s trying to butter me up. He’s often promised me things that his wife then goes around and disagrees with, or outright denies they ever said. My friend is telling me I should run away, live on my own (practically impossible in my country) or, failing that, once I get my money I should sit them down and talk about the terms of my ‘helping.’ On one hand, that does seem reasonable. On the other hand, it also feels ungrateful.
I wouldn’t mind paying rent and my own expenses. I already pay for my college and for most big things, it’s only reasonable, and I often suggested that once I turned 21 I could live off my inheritance. But they always refuse and say that ‘It’s their duty’ and they didn’t want me to touch my money.
So why is Uncle now talking about ‘sharing’? He also explicitly told me not to mention this to any of our relatives and to claim that he got the new house with his money. The alarms are blaring louder.
Am I overreacting? Am I not? Should I just suck it up and accept that, sometimes, I gotta be the bad guy?
Grateful But Worried College Girl
Dear Grateful But Worried:
I am glad alarm bells are going off for you, because they are certainly going off for me.
It sounds like your inheritance has come as some kind of trust (allowing you to pay for education expenses, etc.) but that you will actually control the principal on your 21st birthday. Is this correct?
It sounds like, where you live, people live at home with their families maybe until marriage, and moving out and getting a place of your own is not the norm. So “just get your own place” and “take your brother with you, if he wants to come,” has some friction around it.
Here’s the stuff that is making the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up:
The timing of the move to an expensive new house (that it sounds like he cannot afford without your help) to coincide with the principal of your inheritance becoming available.
Vagueness around what “help” means. A few hundred dollars to trick out your room? Paying a percentage of the mortgage over time, in lieu of rent? Paying for the entire house? You living there indefinitely and him pretty much having access to and control over your money?
Secrecy. If you are an adult member of the household and you are contributing in some way, why is this a shameful secret?
When your uncle pulled you aside to talk with you, did you feel like saying “Actually, Uncle, I don’t plan to live at home after my 21st birthday, so please do not plan around me financially” was a perfectly fine, safe option that was on the table? If so, problem solved, right? Just be bluntly honest and this will all be cleared up!
If you’re just two adults talking, and one of those adults makes a request, there should be an assumption that the other adult can refuse that request or negotiate that request. It doesn’t sound like your uncle is open to the possibility of refusal and is treating this like a done deal, which means it wasn’t actually a request: It was an assumption dressed in a guilt sweater and wearing secrecy pants and an overcoat of “I have power over you!” This is why your friend is saying “Run away!“
It’s admirable that you would want to assist your family, but you and your brother are not insurance policies or lottery tickets that have been hanging out waiting to be cashed. I think it’s reasonable to ask adult children who are living at home to pay rent and otherwise contribute to the household, but children are not obligated to pay back food & shelter & care. It’s also not your obligation to make your uncle’s assumptions come true. If this were all cool and above-board, your uncle wouldn’t have to work so hard to convince you, and there wouldn’t be such a need for secrecy.
When someone is trying to manipulate you, your best bet is to remain noncommittal (agree to nothing!), hang back, and look at the truth of what you want. Absent your family’s request, guilt, influence, need, etc. what do you want? A manipulator will try to obscure and separate you from that truth. You also did a smart thing by telling your friend and telling us – manipulators thrive on secrecy, so one power you have against them is to not keep their secrets.
Manipulators will either a) pressure you hard to agree, so they can come back later with “But you promised!” or b) roll right over you and not even give you a chance to respond, so they can later take your silence in the face of their assumptions as assent. It’s possible that in your uncle’s mind, now that he’s had that conversation, everything is a done deal. Whatever you say going foward, you want to a) delay an actual decision b) ask him to be more specific c) make the delivery of a decision conditional in some way.
Your best bet is probably to not bring it up again (while you quietly marshal some resources, more on that below) and put the onus on him to approach you again and make an actual, actionable request. He’s completely tipped his hand here, but you haven’t, so it’s okay if he thinks you are quietly mulling or agreeing if it buys you time. If he does approach you again, a script is could be as simple as “Can you tell me exactly what kind of help you have in mind?”
And hey, if he says, “Whoa, actually, I just meant we’d like you to pay rent of $x/month starting after your birthday, is that cool?” then hey, you’ll know, and it will actually be cool. I would love for us to be overreacting here! I would love for him to just be laying the groundwork for “We’ve always turned you down when you suggested paying rent, but now that you’re going to be an adult it’s time to revisit that question” conversation. If that’s what he’s doing, he’s being a good parent figure and dealing with you respectfully. And you asking for specifics is just you participating fully in a discussion that affects you.
If that’s not what he’s doing, be prepared to get a blast of “What’s there to discuss? Don’t you want to help your faaaaaaaaamily?” pushback. Or a dose of “I am an older male figure, and you are a mere young lady, don’t you think I know what’s best for you? Don’t worry your pretty head about such things” patronizing crap. See also: “I am insulted that you would even suggest such a shady thing by asking questions of me! My feelings are hurt! I am so wounded!” (where the only way to “apologize” for your “insult” is to just vaguely do what he vague-wants). If you’re old enough to be asked for money, you’re old enough to a) know exactly how much money and b) have a say in its disposal.
Just keep repeating “I want to pull my own weight, of course, but I can’t agree to anything without knowing exactly what it is” or “As a businessman, I’m sure you’d agree it’s not a good idea to make an agreement without knowing the particulars– come on, you raised me to be smarter than that!” or just “I promise I’ll think about it!” and get out of there. And make sure all conversations with your uncle have witnesses for the time being – don’t get into any more secret one-on-one talks.
So, after you turn 21, do you want to live in that new house with your aunt and uncle? Do you want to be responsible for supporting them financially? Is that how and where you see your future happening over the medium term? Living in the room where you’ll be closer to friends and can have a part-time job and maybe some more freedom of movement, but where people go through your things and give them away?
If you told your uncle what you truly want out of the next few years, would he support you or impede you? How far would he go (manipulation, guilt trip, further restrictions of your movements, violence) to get his way?
Whatever it is you decide that you truly want for yourself, hold fast to it. And then start making a plan that will get you what you want and keep you safe until you can get it.
This means some emergency planning. It can feel like a vast overreaction to start compiling this stuff and thinking in this paranoid way. But it really hurts no one to quietly put this stuff together. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it, but it can give you peace of mind to know that you could if you had to. For example:
- Where are your identity & travel documents? Can you make copies and keep them with a friend? Do not let your aunt & uncle store these or have control of them. Make up an excuse about needing to make copies of them for school, etc. if you have to to get them.
- Could you put aside/save/stash a bunch of money that your aunt and uncle don’t know about and only you can access, in case you needed to leave in a hurry? Could a friend keep a travel bag with clothing, cash, documents, etc. for you?
- As a veteran of being spied upon, I’m sure you already know this, but use private or incognito windows in your internet browsers. Password-protect your phone. Become educated about computer security and take charge of yours.
Now, take inventory of the people in your life. Who is on Team You, and could act as a network of support if things got bad?
- People at your university – professors, administrators
- Family members other than your uncle that you have a good relationship with
- Your attorney or whoever handles issues with your inheritance
Who might be able to take you in, or set you up with alternative housing? And could you test out these alternatives in small, non-permanent ways? “I’ve decided to stay in the dorms for the next semester to be closer to my friends.” “I’m going on a volunteer trip over the school break to catalog species of frogs in the rainforest.” “Uncle Frodo and Aunt Galadriel invited me to stay with them for a few months, I’d love to take them up on it and spend time with them.”
Apply for every volunteer opportunity, internship, study-abroad session, etc. and visit every family member you have. Your aunt & uncle keep you on a very tight leash, it sounds like. How far will that leash stretch? Find out now, not “in the hypothetical new house in the hypothetical future where you have agreed to my requets.” It’s hard to argue with “It’s for my education!” and “But I want to be close to all my family!” or “Not having parents, I’m sure you would agree it’s important for me to be close to all my family!”
Reaching out to that attorney or executor is incredibly important. Does they know you, personally? Do you already have a relationship there? If they aren’t an attorney, can they recommend one? As your birthday approaches, there could be tons of reasons that you need to talk to financial advisors and seek legal advice. Make sure that person can be trusted and is 100% on your side (aka, not in your uncle’s pocket). If you trust them, run your uncle’s request by them and see what they say. Ask if the uncle has approached them about it. Get a sense of what they think you should do. This is a creepy, depressing question, but also find out/spell out: What happens to your money if something happens to you?
If you are close to other people in the family and feel like you can trust them, tell them about the request. You’re not responsible for keeping your uncle’s secret. “Uncle wants me to help out financially when I get my inheritance. The way he asked made me a bit uncomfortable. Have you ever had to handle anything like this before? I feel guilty saying no after all he’s done for me, but the request was so vague I don’t know that I can agree to it. What should I say?” Relatives who admonish you that you MUST do what your uncle says are not on Team You.
This is logistical groundwork but also about reminding yourself that you are part of a community. Manipulators want to isolate you so that the only voice you listen to is theirs. You have more savvy and more resources than you probably give yourself credit for, and it can be incredibly empowering to realize that you could make it without your aunt & uncle if you had to.
When you are ready to address your uncle’s request directly, you can treat it like he made a reasonable request of a fellow adult to start contributing around the house, and as such, you’d like to discuss it like adults in well in advance of making any decisions. This has the advantage of being the right thing to do whether or not there is anything shady or manipulative going on. I suggest that you set up a meeting between your uncle, your attorney, and you to discuss particulars. In fact, agree to NOTHING until this meeting takes place. You want an advocate and a witness present for this talk, someone who can make it clear that you haven’t actually agreed to anything and have no obligation to do so. Someone who can put everything in writing. Someone who can force your uncle to articulate his expectations. A lawyer is a buffer between you and your uncle, someone who can say “She wants to help and loves you! But secret conversations without actual numbers do not constitute agreement.” Possible agenda for that meeting:
- What does “helping out” look like to your uncle? Ask the question, or have your attorney ask it, and then be silent. You want to find out if he wants a one-time thing, ongoing thing, carte blanche, etc., and you want him to be the one to articulate what it is vs. you suggesting anything.
- If (big if) you made some kind of financial agreement, would your name also be on the title to the house, as partial owner? What rights & responsibilities does that entail? (You don’t necessarily want this at all, but it’s a question that should be raised. If we’re “sharing,” how is that spelled out, exactly?
- In the initial discussion, he brought up the possibility of increased privacy, freedom, etc. Can that be part of any agreement?
- What are the conditions/procedures for terminating the agreement?
- Could any initial agreement be for a short term, with option to renew?
- What are your liabilities if things go wrong? (If your uncle becomes unable to pay for the house, or it’s hit by a tornado or he’s sued in some way – lawyers are paid to think about the worst case scenarios and plan for those).
- Why all the secrecy? No, really, why? Again, I’m not a lawyer, but this is a question I would ask if I were one in this scenario – “You asked your niece to keep her assistance confidential. Why is that?” It could be that it’s a face-saving thing, or it could be that there are troubled business dealings afoot and your uncle has something to hide. That would certainly be relevant if you were entering into any kind of financial arrangement with him.
- What about your younger brother? (It might be useful to know if your uncle expects similar “help” from him down the road, or if he sees his care as contingent upon financial reward).
If it’s your uncle’s intention to deal fairly and open with you, then all of this should be no problem. Nobody should be giving anyone a potentially house-buying chunk of money or even paying monthly rent without some negotiation and some kind of contract in place, and anyone who encourages you do so is not about protecting you. Being absolutely clear about expectations and putting things in writing protects everyone.
Okay, listen. Remember when I asked you what you want?
You’re under no obligation to give your uncle anything. You could meet with the lawyer, hear him out, etc. and decide “Nope!” “If you can’t afford the house on your own, you shouldn’t buy it. My long-term plans don’t involve living there with you, so it doesn’t make sense to become financially entangled with you/house at this time.”
You don’t have to know or communicate your long term plans. You just get to say “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Your aunt & uncle’s feelings of disappointment, anger, etc. are theirs to deal with. That’s because your dead sibling’s children are not your investment policy, jerks!
If your uncle buys a house he can’t really afford because he was counting on unspecified “help” from you, and then tries to guilt you into paying for it after the fact, that is his mistake, not your obligation to fix. Watch for forced teaming.
The *only* reason I suggest delaying, hedging, or working in a roundabout way is for your own safety and peace of mind while you still have to live there. If you don’t feel like it’s a request you can say no to, and you feel like your safety & freedom would be threatened if you said a direct “no,” it is okay to stall for time while you marshall your resources. Promises made under duress to someone in a position of authority and power over you are not real promises that must be delivered upon.
If you feel a sense of obligation, and you are coming into money-to-burn kind of money and can be generous without having any adverse impacts on you or your future, you could decide to give your aunt & uncle a one-time small gift. “Now that I’m ‘of age’, I wanted to recognize all you’ve done for Brother and me. Here. No strings attached.” That is not an obligation, or something they are entitled to expect, but if it will help you mentally “settle accounts” on your way of being free from them, it might be worth it. There are times in my life where being able to make a “Thanks for the guilt trip and the memories, here you go! Now shut up forever” payment would come in handy for my peace of mind, whether the other party deserved anything or not.
Above all, going forward, trust your instincts. Trust what you want for yourself. Trust the part of yourself that told you that something was fishy about the way your uncle made his request. You seem to have a pretty strong sense of your own boundaries and what’s right and wrong, which is comforting. Be well, and keep us updated if you feel comfortable.