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The Benefits (And Risks) of a Multi-Generational Household

Throughout history, the multi-generational household has always had its place in our society. At times the multi-generational family has been common and plentiful, at other times rare and seen only on the fringes of society. In the past few years, for reasons of both economy and practicality, the percentage of Americans living in multi-generational households has been steadily rising. In fact, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal states that “In 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1% of the population, lived in households with at least two adult generations or a grandparent plus one other generation, according to the nonprofit Pew Research Center in Washington. That is up 17% from 2000."

Although multi-generational living had fallen out of fashion in the decades prior to this, there are a number of reasons why inviting elderly parents to live with you can benefit the entire family. “By living together, families say they are better able to meet one another's needs for child and elder care. Moreover, money saved on rent can help finance a graduate degree, a job search or a down payment on a house, or offset the costs of long-term care."

But setting up housekeeping with your parents (or your kids) isn’t as simple as merely moving furniture, often there are financial—or even legal—details to be worked out. Here are some of the things you should discuss before you build the “in-law extension" in your home:

Will the situation be permanent or temporary? Whether your kids are moving back in until they find that dream job, or your parents are coming to live with you until they find the right retirement community, it’s important to discuss these goals and practical steps that will be taken to reach them. “Those who prefer a temporary arrangement should work out an exit strategy—for example, by estimating how long it will take a person experiencing financial problems to regain his or her footing."

Will the “new tenants" pay rent, or make any other contribution to household expenses? If so, it is absolutely imperative to work out a rental agreement before hand. Also, the “landlord" will need to ascertain whether the rent they collect should be reported to the IRS as income. “Some landlords simply aim to cover the extra expenses they incur. In that case, they owe no taxes on the payments they receive."

If two generations are looking to purchase a new property together, there are completely different details to be considered. “When generations join forces to purchase or modify a property, each should retain an advisor to review the tax and estate-planning consequences and protect their investment in the event the union dissolves." Additionally, “joint ownership can pose problems for those who may need to rely on Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) to cover future nursing-home costs." (information added.) It is a good idea to consult with an attorney who is familiar with the Medi-Cal rules before signing any contracts.

There are many benefits to living in a multi-generational household, but even with all these benefits it is hardly an agreement to be entered into lightly. Families considering taking this step should discuss it not only with the entire family, but with their financial and legal advisors.

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