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Note to Seniors: The Kids Don’t Want Your House

Some older adults won’t downsize because they want to transfer their “pride of ownership” to loved ones – but the younger generation wants to buy its own house.

WASHINGTON – My husband and I are updating our estate plan. Our eldest daughter, now 28, will manage our affairs in the event we become incapacitated and can’t handle our finances, and after we pass away. Our will specifies how our assets will be distributed and stipulates what kind of medical care we want if we cannot speak for ourselves. We also have a living will that addresses whether we want life-prolonging procedures.

Our goal is to avoid leaving a hot mess behind when we are gone. Far too many people don’t plan for their death. Just 46% of U.S. adults have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. The remaining 54% are at the mercy of their states to dictate how their assets will be distributed. Americans 65 or older are the most likely to have a will, with just over three-quarters saying they have one, Gallup found.

But it’s not enough to have an estate plan. You need to talk to your heirs about your wishes and the reasons behind them. You also may need to reconsider directives based on those conversations.

Among the things we discussed with our daughter was our wish to be cremated. We want to set aside funds to help family members who might need financial assistance and contribute to a college fund for a niece and nephew.

What about the family home?

The conversation then turned to our two-story Colonial home, which we paid off before my husband’s retirement this year. Hallelujah! Getting that debt off our backs fulfilled a longtime desire to keep the house in the family, with no mortgage.

In this home, we’ve welcomed relatives who needed a place to recuperate financially. It’s the central location for our extended-family gatherings during the holidays, birthdays and college graduations. We envisioned at least one of our children, all in their 20s, moving into the home once we are gone. Selling it was not part of our estate plan.

Or so we thought.

“Mom, I’m selling the house,” Olivia pronounced.

“Um, our house, our choice,” I shot back.

I explained to her again – because we’ve talked about this numerous times – that Black folks need to hold on to their homes. We are a people who have suffered greatly from systemic racism that made it extremely difficult to become homeowners.

In 1940, the Black homeownership rate was 22.8%, nearly half of the 45.6% for whites, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Until 1968, homeowners and real estate agents could legally refuse to sell homes to African Americans and other people of color. Financial institutions, with the backing of federal policy, carved out sections of cities in a racially motivated system called redlining. It allowed banks to deny mortgage loans based on a home buyer’s race. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made these practices illegal.

Two years later, the homeownership rate for Blacks was 41.6%. Among white households, it was 68%.

Over five decades later, homeownership rates among Blacks have barely moved the needle. In 2022, about 46% of Black families owned their home, according to the Federal Reserve’s recently released Survey of Consumer Finances. That compares with 73% for white families.

I started to weep as I reminded Olivia what I wrote in my “Sincerely, Michelle” series about race, which is that the net worth of most Americans comes down to the equity in their homes. It’s this equity that has created generational wealth.

My grandmother, the great-granddaughter of enslaved individuals, scrimped and saved to become mortgage-free before she retired. She drilled into me that, as best you can, you keep the family home.

No, ma’am, you will not sell our home, I told my daughter after my history lesson.

Then she schooled me.

“Mom, I hear you, and I understand your passion about keeping the house,” she began. She’s a trained social worker and therapist, so her tone was soothing and respectful. She then made a case for selling our home that I hadn’t considered.

“If you leave the house to just one of us, the ones who don’t get to have a paid-for home might feel some kind of way,” she said. “Plus, this house is too big for us. Wouldn’t it make more sense to take the money and invest in homes we want.”

Olivia explained, having discussed it with her siblings, that they also want to be mortgage-free before they retire. With no mortgage or a smaller home loan, it would free up money they could then apply toward their retirement accounts or save to send their children to college debt-free, as we had done for them.

“Wouldn’t that still contribute to the wealth-building in our family?” Olivia asserted.

She was right.

Older homeowners face maintenance challenges

I’ve counseled families who stubbornly held on to homes that no one wanted, only to let it deteriorate because they lacked the funds to maintain the property. Protracted legal battles can ensue when one heir wants to keep the house but can’t afford to buy the others’ share.

Of the 6% of Americans who own homes or other property they inherited, about half don’t use them as a primary residence, according to a Washington Post analysis of Fed data. About 4% of Black Americans live in an inherited home, compared with about 3% of Whites.

But what good does it do to keep a home that isn’t being used or providing positive cash flow just because your mama, daddy or grandparent made you swear never to sell?

We are changing the will.

Then I raised the issue of our ashes. “Will you put it on a shelf in your home?”

“Mom, no, we don’t want your ashes,” Olivia said.

“What if you put some ashes in a locket or turn them into a diamond,” I offered as a compromise.

“Ew, no,” she said. “I’ll just carry your memory in my heart and spread your ashes in the ocean because you like the beach.”

That made me laugh.

So, our kids don’t want our home or our ashes, and that’s okay. It’s not just about what we want. It’s also what’s best for them.

© Copyright 2023, Winston-Salem Journal, Winston-Salem, N.C.