The Ethical Dilemma: I’m Caring For My Blind Brother. Does He Owe Me Money?

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Unreturned Favors: I’m on disability with very limited income and no savings. I own a home free and clear, but it needs some structural repairs that will probably cost around $20,000. My brother-in-law is not rich but has a pension and a 401k worth about $400,000. He is blind so he relies on me to do errands for him, which I have been happy to do for years. My sister is mentally incapacitated. Now that I need financial help, he does not feel any responsibility toward me even if my house is condemned and I wind up homeless. I’m struggling to deal with this, but I don’t want to be around him anymore, and that means not seeing my sister. I feel he’s cold and selfish, and I just want to break off all ties. I have a hard time dealing with this feeling of betrayal and the fakery. I hate driving an hour each way every weekend to pretend I have a relationship with this prick.

—Ready to Quit

Dear Ready,

I’m so sorry for your difficult situation. You don’t actually pose a question, but it seems you’d like confirmation that it’s OK for you to break off relations with your brother-in-law, and with your sister thrown in as collateral damage.

I don’t think so.

You say you used to be fine with running errands for your brother-in-law, but now you resent schlepping to him and acting as though nothing has changed. You feel he owes you a substantial sum in return for all you’ve done for him.

It’s always problematic when a person with less means feels it’s incumbent upon a person who has more, particularly a relative, to help them out. Money is funny—people who are willing to give or take services, kindness, and priceless intangibles may not be willing to share cold hard cash. Your brother-in-law may not feel he owes you money, or he may feel he can’t afford what you need. He may argue he can’t spare what he has, since he probably has no way to get more if generosity to you were to leave him short of funds for himself and your sister—which does not seem like an unreasonable perspective. There may also be some history as to why you have no savings that, justified or not, makes him reluctant to invest in you, or that would explain why he is fine with accepting your generosity but not with reciprocating. It would be helpful if we could hear his side of this.

Have you come right out and asked him for help and he’s refused? Has he given you reasons? Can you approach your sister? Is there no one else in your life you might ask for a gift or loan? What about social services? If you’re disabled and on limited income, there is very likely some form of assistance you might qualify for. You are disabled yet capable of driving two hours a week and running errands. Maybe you could get a paid job doing similar work close by.

Speaking of paid jobs, one approach you might take is to inform your brother-in-law that from now on he needs to reimburse you for your services. Perhaps you can arrange for him to give you a loan upfront to finance your repairs and then repay it with the tasks you perform. Or, assuming you could get past your current anger, would it be possible for you to sell your home and live with your brother-in-law and sister, and do their errands as part of your rent?

If you decide not to have anything more to do with your brother-in-law, I hope you can find a way to continue to see your sister, who you care about. Even if it’s not every weekend, perhaps you can take her out so you don’t have to spend much time with him. Maybe, despite her issues, she might be able to travel to you. It doesn’t seem fair or desirable, for her or for you, to cut off your sister because you are disappointed in her husband. Wouldn’t that amount to cutting off your nose to spite your face? Don’t abandon her or your bond with her.