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My sister is a single mother and thinks ‘squatter’s rights’ is the way to secure housing in the pandemic. What can I do?

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I am a 30-year-old woman who has built a stable and happy life for myself, after growing up in a family that was often unstable emotionally and financially. I love my family, but as I become more successful, my family needs more and more of my support.

My sister and her son moved into my father’s one-bedroom apartment in July (which is going against the lease). I was very against this living situation due to it being way too small for two adults and a rambunctious child.

My sister said she had no other options because her credit is terrible, she has little savings, and she was brought to court around an eviction (that was dismissed but she says it still hinders her). She has now been laid off for not having child care, and is collecting unemployment. My father was struggling to pay for his apartment on his own, as well.

Their relationship has now deteriorated to a level where I do not think they will be able to continue living together. My aunt is the co-signer for my father’s apartment, and says she can let my father stay in her spare bedroom if he works with her to fix his finances. My aunt has been trying to help me, as she knows I am overwhelmed mediating their arguments and finances.

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I told my sister we will need to find another place for her to live after April, and that I would cosign if she sat down with me to go over her finances. She cried and said it would be impossible to find a place being unemployed, and that no one cares about her ending up homeless.

She said she will refuse to leave the apartment if management doesn’t let her take over the lease. She believes that since she is a single mother with a child, they will not be able to evict her. I have tried to explain there could be very negative consequences on her tenant record and my aunt as a co-signer (since my sister is in the apartment illegitimately to begin with), but she says everything will be fine.

I do not want to hold my sister’s past mistakes against her, and COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on single mothers. She has been better with her money the last three months, but she has been very irresponsible in her spending the last few years (paying for breast implants, for example). She cannot stay with me, because I am serving as a head of house in one of my alma mater’s dorms, which grants me and my partner a free apartment.

How should I proceed with my sister, in regards to her “squatters rights” argument and me co-signing in the future for her? Am I being too supportive, or not supportive enough? For me, it is not about the money so much, I am glad to support my family as I make more than they do.

I feel guilty even having my own financial goals (paying down student debt, down payment for a home, travel), when they are struggling in this way. I am becoming more and more dispirited as I feel immense empathy for their legitimate struggles, frustrated by their lack of agency, and guilty for the stable life I have built for myself.


Sister Struggles

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Dear Sister,

I will answer your letter in two parts.

Firstly, your sister. The hard, bitter truth is you can only help people who want to be helped. Your sister appears to want what she wants when she wants it. She wants to be accommodated by you, her father, and her landlord. The world owes her a favor, and she is going to call in that favor again and again. For her to exclaim that no one cares if she ends up homeless when you are actually trying to help put a roof over her head suggests that she is using the same manipulations that may or may not have worked in the past.

If she walks close enough to the edge, one of her family members will pull her back and bail her out. Perhaps it’s a test of your love for her, or maybe it’s because she has and will continue to put herself first. The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on single mothers, but I don’t think your sister can blame the pandemic for her current plight. It sounds as if she has been making questionable decisions before the pandemic and, unless she has some kind of white-light moment, she will continue to make them afterwards.

If you are putting your credit rating and money on the line, she should meet you more than half way. As it is, she seems unwilling to play by the rules, and see how her actions impact those around her: people who care about her, and the landlord of this property, who is likely to be struggling too. Nothing appears to be her fault. Even the reason she lost her job does not lie at her doorstep. In order to change, people have to take accountability for their own actions, and they have to be willing to change. Based on your letter, your sister shows no signs of either.

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Now, to you. The guiltier you feel for the life that you have earned for yourself, the more those around you will be able to turn their problems into your problems. Given your father and sister’s unsuccessful and dysfunctional cohabiting arrangement, your family system may be based on a series of co-dependent relationships, where chaotic personalities and family discord are a familiar space. Sometimes, we are attracted to situations that feel familiar to us. Although it may feel wrong and uncomfortable, we have been conditioned to return there again and again.

You are not responsible for your sister. She is responsible for herself. It may be hard to watch her make bad life decisions, especially when she has a child, but you have worked hard for the life that you have, and you have every right to enjoy it. You are not beholden to your family for a lifetime of debt that will be paid time and again with your peace of mind and happiness. Whatever your sister’s problems are related to borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, or substance abuse, and/or a sense that she is always done wrong, that’s her gig.

Your father moved out. There is no reason you should be left holding your sister and her baby. Try this: You didn’t create her problems, you are not responsible for them, and you can’t cure them. (I am not the first person to say that. It is a popular mantra for people who are trying to disconnect from co-dependent relationships.) Your father is your father, but he is also just another human being in the world doing the best he can with the life skills that were given to him. The same is true for your sister. You have a right to live your life, free from her drama.

Hello there, MarketWatchers. 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.

Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com. By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.

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