Dear Penny: Am I a Jerk if I Refuse to Pay for My Mother-in-Law’s Funeral?

A stock photo depicts a sad woman looking at a casket.
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Dear Penny,

My mother-in-law is 89 and in good health. The reason I’m writing is that in August 2019, my father-in-law died at age 88 from cancer. There are eight siblings in total. My husband is the oldest, and my sister-in-law is fifth and has power of attorney for their parents.

When my father-in-law was in the hospital, my husband spoke to his sister about financial needs. My sister-in-law and her husband have helped my in-laws for years but said they were tapped out. Later after speaking to me, my husband told me he was going to give them money to help toward funeral expenses. He gave them a check for $5,000, money taken out on one of our credit cards. 

My sister-in-law accepted the check but completely shut my husband out of participating in my father-in-law's funeral Mass. Even after my husband asked if he could say the eulogy, she informed him she was saying the eulogy and had already selected other family members for other participating parts. 

She had five pages to speak from, but she only mentioned herself, her husband and their dog on how meaningful our father-in-law was in their lives. She said nothing about her seven siblings or the 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. A lot of family and friends who attended remarked that the way she said the eulogy came across if she were an only child, instead of one of eight siblings. 

I’m expecting the same outcome for my mother-in-law's funeral, except this time I’m going to tell my husband that we will not help with any funeral expenses. If he insists, I only want him to give $500, not $5,000. We did pay off the $5,000 in less than a year, but I don't want us to be as generous to my sister-in-law in the future, even though it would be toward my mother-in-law's funeral. 

I realize my resentment is obvious in my letter, but I do want us to do the right thing. What should we do?

— Outlaw

Dear Outlaw,

Your conundrum reminds me of the old saying about how funerals are for the living, not the dead. Still, if you want to do the right thing, this needs to be about your mother-in-law, not your sister-in-law.

That’s not to say you and your husband shouldn’t consider what you can afford. But you need to separate your budget from petty family drama.

You don’t have to like your sister-in-law. But I think you need to give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to how she handled your father-in-law’s funeral for two reasons.

One, giving a eulogy for a parent is really hard. Her message may not have come across as intended due to nerves and grief.

More important, though, is the fact that your sister-in-law helped out your in-laws for years. Supporting someone while they’re living counts a lot more than giving a good eulogy. Give her credit for that even if you think she mishandled the funeral.

Dear Penny

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If charging $5,000 to a credit card again and spending a year paying it off would cause you serious stress, you should discuss that with your husband. With eight siblings, perhaps they could spread out the cost of your mother-in-law’s final arrangements more evenly. Maybe by planning for this eventual expense now, they can lessen the burden on any one sibling.

Bear in mind, though, that paying for a funeral isn’t like buying a Super Bowl ad. Spending more doesn’t necessarily get you more time. Even if your husband and his siblings split the costs evenly, it’s pretty unlikely that everyone’s going to get equal time. With eight siblings, that would make for a really long funeral.

Try to separate the money aspect from how the service is handled. That’s up to your husband and his siblings to decide. If he and the other siblings felt excluded at your father-in-law’s service, it will be up to them to speak up and tell your sister-in-law that. Think of how you’d want your husband to respond to a death in your immediate family. If you wouldn’t be OK with capping your contribution at $500, don’t impose that limit on your husband.

Meanwhile, give support to your mother-in-law while she’s living. That doesn’t have to involve money. Make regular visits a priority if you don’t already. Your husband should encourage his siblings to do the same.

Quit worrying so much about the details of your mother-in-law’s funeral that’s hopefully a long time away. The right thing to do here is to focus on making her remaining years meaningful instead.

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Editor’s note: This column was originally published Aug. 15, 2021.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].