Dear Penny: Should My Gravely Ill Brother-in-Law Pay for Ruining Our Home?

A man looks upset while looking out the window of his home.
Getty Images
Dear Penny,

Fifteen years ago we paid $17,000 to renovate my husband's homestead that his mom left him. His brother had recently divorced and was on Social Security only. He's 78 now. We only asked that he not smoke inside and keep it clean, and we didn't charge rent. 

In the beginning, he kept it immaculate. In the last three years, his health began to decline. He assured us he was taking care of everything but always wanted to sit on the porch when we visited. 

Last week, he was hospitalized for COVID pneumonia and was unresponsive. We needed to find his meds for the hospital doctor. The house was a disaster! 

Two rooms were blocked off, and I'm scared to look. There are clothes piled 3 feet high on the kitchen table, 20-plus bags of garbage in the kitchen, and black mold on the counter that probably hadn't been cleaned in a year. The bathroom was black, too. Needless to say, there are spider webs and thick dust throughout the place. 

If and when he's released, there is no way he can return home. The place is probably cleanable, but it's going to take weeks. I'm not sure where to start. 

Should we charge my brother-in-law for cleaning? We didn't have a lease since he wasn't paying. We can't afford to pay someone ourselves. We had planned on selling the house when he eventually passed away but with this mess, that's not possible either. We can't discuss it with him at the moment due to his health, but this makes us sick to see and I’m not sure how to handle it. Any advice?


Dear L.,

You’re not wrong for wanting your brother-in-law to pay for the damage he’s caused, but be realistic. He’s 78. He’s in poor health. Presumably, he’s still living off his Social Security. Even if you sent your brother-in-law the bill for cleaning, do you think he’d be able to pay it?

It doesn’t sound like he allowed the property to deteriorate out of laziness since he initially kept it in good shape. I’m guessing he became overwhelmed with upkeep as his health declined. Perhaps he was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Dear Penny

Ask Dear Penny!

Get practical money advice from Dana Miranda, the voice of Dear Penny and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance.

DISCLAIMER: Questions will appear in The Penny Hoarder’s “Dear Penny” column. We are unable to answer every letter. We reserve the right to edit and publish your questions. But don’t worry — your identity will remain anonymous.

A good first step would be to meet with a social worker, which most hospitals have on staff.

They can discuss options for your brother-in-law’s care, such as an assisted living facility, rehabilitation center or a nursing home, since it sounds like he may be unable to live safely on his own. If necessary, they can also help your brother-in-law apply for Medicaid, since Medicare doesn’t cover long-term care. A social worker may also be able to help you navigate the difficult discussion you’ll eventually need to have with your brother-in-law about why he can’t return home.

You’re obviously in shock, given that you hadn’t seen the home’s interior in several years, but you also say the home is probably cleanable. Even though you don’t think you can afford it, I’d contact a couple of cleaning services and ask for estimates. Look for a service that specializes in abandoned homes, since they’ll have experience dealing with things like mold remediation and junk removal.

If you think this is a hoarding situation, you can also use the International OCD Foundation’s website to see if your community has a hoarding task force. The services these groups offer vary widely, but some offer cleanup help.

I have no idea what the property could be worth if it were in decent condition. But you should talk to a local real estate agent about what it would take to make this house sellable. It may be worth digging into your savings or even taking out a loan for cleaning and repairs so that you can fetch a decent sale price.

Maybe you could hire a pro to do the work related to health and safety issues, like the black mold, but you and your husband could handle tasks like junk removal. Sacrificing a couple of weeks could have a big payoff if you’re eventually able to sell this home.

If the house requires far more time and money than you’re willing to invest, ask a real estate agent about selling it as-is. You’d still need to disclose all known issues with the house, and the buyer would still be able to do an inspection. But you’re telling the buyer that what they see is what they get.

Often, such listings require a cash buyer. Financing is tough to obtain when a home requires extensive repairs. However, many investors are all too eager to scoop up cheap properties and flip them.

I’d only go this route if you’re certain you can’t afford to make the house inhabitable again. Cleaning up the mess may seem overwhelming right now. But if selling the home is an important part of your financial plans, putting your resources into making it a safe place to live is probably a worthy investment.

Does your balance sheet need a reset? Try these smart ways to organize your finances.

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