Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?
Send your questions to The Humanist Dilemma at email@example.com (subject line: Humanist Dilemma).
All inquiries are kept confidential.
Brother Bother: My husband, Bill, owns his late dad’s house and just made a deal to sell it to someone who is anxious to move in. The closing is set for two weeks from now. Bill’s brother Jim has been staying in the house rent-free for the past six months. Jim did some repairs (for which Bill paid him), oversaw the replacement of the roof and installation of new appliances, etc. Jim is a charismatic person, talented in terms of construction and design, but he has bilked both Bill and their younger brother (who no longer speaks to Jim) out of thousands of dollars over numerous occasions. For example, Jim “borrowed” their dad’s credit card, ran up five figures and never repaid it, and sold some of their dad’s valuables and pocketed the proceeds. Despite this history, Bill let Jim live in the house because he is fastidiously clean and it was better to have the house occupied. When the realtor was unavailable, Jim stepped in and showed the house to the same people who are now buying it.
Bill was planning to give Jim a generous wad of cash as a gesture of gratitude for supervising the new roof. But now Jim is demanding five times that amount to leave, and he wants to stay two weeks past the closing. This man has no sense of right and wrong! (No surprise that he cheated on both of his wives, who divorced him.) Jim’s first ex-wife, who we are close to, says we should call the sheriff. But he’s Bill’s brother. He was the best man at our wedding. What’s the right thing to do?
I would love to hear Jim’s take on this. I’ll bet things look entirely different from his perspective. Perhaps, “I did so much for them for six months and now they are just tossing me out on short notice and with little thanks for all I did for them.” Is he thinking you have no sense of right and wrong? It seems as if this could be more a failure to communicate than a stick-up. But absent Jim’s side of the story, I can only speak to yours.
Even if justified, I doubt calling the sheriff would help, since Jim is a relative living in the house with permission and without a lease. I suggest consulting a lawyer about serving him with an eviction notice, but if that’s even possible, it can take more time than you have before the closing. And as you note, Jim is Bill’s brother, so I’d seek a kinder, gentler approach, at least for starters.
Agree to pay Jim off to get him out, and then be more careful about your dealings with him in the future. You knew Jim had a habit of helping himself to family resources, yet you were willing to have him house-sit and to employ him, and he did perform well (well enough to sell the house!). Maybe Bill and Jim can agree on a number somewhere in the middle, but whatever the amount, you can rationalize the payment as Jim’s “broker fee.” You’ll have to work with the lawyers to delay the closing and finalize when Jim must vacate. That should include drawing up a departure deadline agreement with Jim that would be enforceable if he doesn’t honor it. And don’t give him his payoff (or at least not the bulk of it) until he’s out of the house. (Again, please, all of this should be run by a qualified lawyer, which I am not.)
After this, if you decide to maintain ties with Jim and ever consider doing business with him again, be sure to put everything in writing and make sure you don’t open the door for him to usurp possessions, bank accounts, or real estate.
It may be wiser to restrict dealings with Jim to things like Thanksgiving dinners and family weddings. Don’t provide additional opportunities for Jim to disappoint you—or, perhaps, for you to disappoint him.