My 25-year-old sister announced to the family not long ago that she is pregnant. Normally such news would be celebrated, but I’ve been doing nothing but stressing out since I heard. My sister is a drug addict and mentally ill. She’s never been able to hold a job and continues to smoke like a chimney. She married the father, who she met in rehab. He’s cleaned himself up and joined the military.
I have no doubt that the government will eventually have to remove the baby from her custody because she’s simply not capable of caring for someone else. My entire family agrees. Last week, my parents mentioned that if that day comes, my wife and I should take the child. We are successful professionals who live in New York and make a decent living. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are and don’t plan on children anytime soon.
My parents are elderly and couldn’t raise a newborn. My brother says he wouldn’t consider it. My only hope is that the father will man up and become a decent parent, but that would require his leaving my sister because I can’t imagine her ever being responsible enough to care for a baby.
What responsibility do I have to this child? I want to do the right thing, but I’m not sure what that is.
— Confused and Worried
Your sister needs a social worker if she doesn’t already have one. If your family finds one for her, try to convince your sister to give permission for her immediate family to have the right to discuss her case with the social worker.
Your sister is in urgent need of prenatal care. If she is taking drugs and possibly drinking during her pregnancy, she may have already caused the child serious harm. This must be evaluated, and if the baby has been dangerously exposed, all options, including termination, need to be discussed. If the pregnancy continues, your family should be in as close touch with the father as possible, and your family should make sure your sister is helped — and supervised — when the child is born.
Beyond that, there are just too many unknowns for you to be planning who might get custody. Your sister may be unfit by any standard, but the child has a father and he may rise to the occasion. He may also have a family who could help in caring for the child.
There’s no point now in your dwelling on scenarios of being pressured to take in an unwanted niece or nephew. Nor do I think you have a moral obligation to do so. If this child ends up being put in foster care, or made available for adoption, let’s fervently hope he or she goes to competent people who are ready and eager to have this child in their lives.
And after the birth, try to get your sister to agree to a form of long-term birth control so this sad situation is not repeated.
My father is 65 years old and in outstanding health. He has a small real estate empire of 30 or so multifamily residential homes. He built the business himself and runs it as a one-man band. Toilet clogged? My old man fixes it so as not to have to pay someone else.
The legal structure of my dad’s business is a jumble. Some homes are owned by him and my stepmother, others are held by an LLC he formed. He also has unwritten deals with half a dozen friends and family members. My mother lives in another state in a house owned by my father and possibly his wife. My father is a generous and caring person, but is disorganized and his “office” is a bunch of piles of paper in his basement.
Recently, my sister and brother-in-law quit their jobs and sold their house to relocate with their two small children to work in and maybe take over this business. My father has no will or succession plan, and if he were to die or become incapacitated he would leave behind a complicated legal mess. My sister and I would have to work with our stepmom, with whom neither of us are close.
I find it cruel, irresponsible, and selfish for my dad not to create an estate plan. I am well-off financially, have no direct interest in his estate, and live far away, although I speak to my father regularly. My dad keeps promising me that he will take care of this but he never does. I’ve brought this up so much that he’s tuning me out.
What’s the most effective way to persuade him to address the issue?
— Where There’s No Will
Form a family book club and make the opening selection Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” There you could read about the fictional case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the dispute over an inheritance that goes on for so long the entire estate is consumed in legal fees.
For advice on your situation I turned to an expert, attorney Stephen McDaniel, former president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils. This gave McDaniel a chance to repeat the mantra of estate planners everywhere: Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. As you are aware, your father’s inability to address the inevitable will leave his heirs with an unholy mess. If he dies intestate, he will have designated the state legislature to decide what happens to the “empire” he built.
Though laws vary among states, McDaniel said likely the business will be divided among your father’s wife and children, and probably your stepmother will be named executor. She has a built-in conflict of interest as regards you and your sister — not to mention your mother, her husband’s previous wife, who might find her living situation rather precarious.
McDaniel said that figuring out who inherits multiple parcels of land of different value is so complicated that the whole enterprise might have to be sold. If that happens, let’s hope it’s in a rising market.
McDaniel says that he believes children are not entitled to inherit from their parents, but conversely they don’t deserve to be handed a posthumous calamity that will generate legal bills and emotional strife. Instead of continuing to nag your father about this, I think you should take action. Tell him you’re going to interview some estate planners in his area (you can start with the NAEPC referral list), and when you’ve identified one or two you like, tell your father you’re coming for a visit and during it you want to go with him to the lawyers’ offices to get the process started.
Stay long enough to see that he retains a firm and either help your father gather the appropriate paperwork to bring to the attorney, or see that he hires someone who can assist.
Yes, this will take some time out of your life. But you know if you don’t do this now, when your father is gone you will be consumed with sorting out the needs of family members who aren’t independent like you and whose worlds have just collapsed.
Please send your questions for publication to email@example.com. Questions may be edited.