COVID-19 changed many things – not the least of which may be how and where we live. In working with clients I noticed repeated patterns of children moving in with parents and grandparents, where adult children often bring along their own extended families. While in the earlier days of COVID much was made of how to prevent infection of vulnerable elderly family members and how to practice social distancing, now that it seems the worst is past, focus seems to turn to “is this something I want to continue?” and “how does it work best for all concerned?”
My expression to describe this living arrangement had been “combined families.” I only later learned “combined families” is used more commonly for stepfamilies. The term generally used to describe what I am seeing is “multigenerational” families, something that did not begin with COVID but seems to be accelerated by it. The fact that more of us are living together is heralded by an organization, Generations United, that reports today 1 in 4 Americans lives in a multigenerational household. https://www.gu.org/explore-our-topics/multigenerational-households/
What are the issues and how does law – and for that matter real estate and finances – play into it?
- Finding the space. Chances are the multigenerational living arrangement may have begun with an unexpected event. It could have resulted from move from a home on loss of a job especially with downsizing and employers shutting down businesses or retiring. Just as likely is health motivation either because of declining health of an older family member or anticipated future health issues. Socialization is another major reason. Parents and children missing each other, tired of relating from a distance and grandparents wanting to spend time with their grandchildren are strong motivators. The multigenerational family also has the benefit of shared tasks. Grandmom might watch the younger children while their parents work whether at home or commuting. Sometimes all works well with a home large enough to hold everyone. Sometimes, and this is one area as an elder law attorney I have frequently been involved in, the multigenerational family needs more space to spread out and find privacy. Here are some areas where we have been able to help.
- Families renovate or enlarge the space where they live. Construction sometimes, maybe often, becomes involved. A new bath needs to be added or maybe an in-law suite. The garage or downstairs or family room needs conversion. Families might add an addition. Zoning could be involved. Division of expense is definitely a consideration along with budgeting. As attorneys we get involved in all these issues and a written “Family Agreement” can help. If there is a question later whether contribution is a “gift” or how these moves affect the estate plan, it can answer those questions.
- Families join together and buy a house. Sometimes families decide to buy another house together either because of space considerations or handicapped accessibility. We have participated in several such arrangements dealing with realtors, title companies, timing of the move, division of costs, splitting the cost between the downpayment and mortgage payments. It is really satisfying to see the arrangement come together.
- Setting boundaries and ground rules. Family agreements can have another purpose which is to set expectations on all sides. Sometimes arrangements hammered out because of the urgency of the moment do not spell out the expectations of everyone involved. Is the living arrangement intended to be permanent or temporary? Who will pay the property taxes, the utilities, will repairs need to be made? What are the responsibilities? How will the property be titled? What is fair? These are issues we consider in meeting with families. Even without a written Agreement, open discussion can be very helpful.
The benefits of multigenerational households are pointed out by Generations United in their article – enhanced bonds or relationships among family members, making it easier to provide for the care needs of one or more family members, improved finances for at least one family member, positive impacts on personal mental and/or physical health and making it possible for at least one family member to continue school or enroll in job training. Ground rules are important and can help to make it work.
Esquire, Colliton Law Associates, P.C. Janet Colliton has practiced law for over 38 years, 37 of them in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her practice, Colliton Law Associates, PC, is limited to elder law, Medicaid, including advice, applications and appeals, and other benefits planning including Veterans benefits, life care and special needs planning, guardianships, retirement, and estate planning and administration.