The Ethical Dilemma: My Brother-in-Law Won’t Move Out!

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Wish I Could Divorce My Wife’s Brother: My brother-in-law went through a rough divorce that was finalized last June. Though he was issued divorce papers over a year earlier (his ex was having an affair), he wasn’t able to move on with his life. He placed a device on her car to track her location and hid a cellphone in their house to record her calls to her lover. His wife served him with a protection order, and six months after the divorce was final he was forced out of his home by court order. His wife was the breadwinner, and he didn’t have a job during their twenty years of marriage, so he moved in with us, promising that he would stay for only three months and sell a small house he owned to purchase a new home.

It’s now been nearly a year and he hasn’t yet sold the house (despite it having several interested buyers) and still lives with us. He doesn’t pay rent and stores his belongings in half of our garage and most of our basement so our children can no longer play or hang out with their friends down there. He doesn’t help with chores and doesn’t consistently help with buying common household items like toilet paper. Every so often, he’ll throw a $20 bill to my wife and tell her to go buy dinner “on him.” This arrangement has led to my wife and I growing apart, but we finally put our foot down: In December, we told him he had until July 1 to move out, giving him an ample seven months’ time to save money (since he doesn’t pay rent or utilities) and find another place to live.

Here’s the problem: after I was laid off last summer, my wife borrowed $6,000 from my brother-in-law. Since we’re now asking him to move out, we think he’ll ask for that money back or he won’t leave. We unfortunately can’t pay him back just yet. Can we still make him move out? There was no written or verbal agreement stating that it would be paid back, but it’s clear this was a loan, not a gift. I just want him out. This arrangement was never intended to be long-term, and he’s disrupting our lives.

—Can We Afford To Throw Him Out?

Dear Afford,

Whoa! There were more than enough problems before you got to “Here’s the problem.”

Can you afford not to throw him out? You need to consult a lawyer ASAP. I find it amazing that there’s no paperwork or even a verbal agreement about the loan. How does that happen? Did you just say, “Hey, do you mind letting us have $6,000 for a while?” with no mention of if or when you’ll pay it back? My understanding is that the amount of this loan is under the threshold that requires reporting to the IRS as income or a gift, so I don’t think that will come back to bite you. And I can’t imagine you would be obligated to repay your brother-in-law before booting him out, since it seems that the loan and the living arrangements are two entirely independent events, not contingent on each other.

But what I’m most concerned about is whether you actually have the right to evict your brother-in-law after all the time he’s lived in your house. Sad but true, I’ve heard of cases where you can’t just throw someone out if your home has been their only home for more than a certain amount of time. So make sure he can’t turn around and get the law on his side if you try to push him out. Ask your lawyer at exactly what point he might be entitled to claim residency. Knowing what that magic date is might propel you to escort him off your premises sooner than the deadline you gave him, even if it means paying for him to stay temporarily in a motel or short-term rental. You might need to get a court order and a marshal to evict him, just as his ex-wife did.

Meanwhile, put together a list of every single expense (room, board, storage, laundry, toilet paper, heat, water, electric, etc.) that you covered since he moved in (minus the twenties he’s tossed at your wife) and see how that total stacks up against the $6,000 loan. Very likely he actually owes you money. You may not wish to refuse to repay him or demand he pay you, but this data could give you extra leverage with your brother-in-law or in court, if it comes to that.

Even if you feel compelled to pledge to pay your brother-in-law something for the loan and/or to help wean him off you, it will be worth it to get him out of your house as soon as you possibly can. I’d say it might spur him to start taking responsibility for himself.

He may be your brother-in-law, but neither you nor your wife made the vow “until death do you part” to include him.