Dear Helaine: I am one of four cousins who co-own a summer house built by our grandparents, who left it to us in equal shares. For many years, it worked out well. There were weeks we all spent together and weeks that each cousin had to him- or herself. It was all pretty informal, but there are enough bedrooms that it always worked out. We paid the taxes and other expenses equally.
A few years ago, one of the cousins moved out of the region and, with one thing or another, hasn't been back to the house. Her son, however, has pretty much moved in, staying for the entire summer. There was no discussion about it. She said he was coming in the spring, and then he showed up and, with the exception of a few days here or there, hasn't left.
He's not a bad person. But he's 25, messy, and not someone I want to see every single minute of my summer vacation. And it doesn't seem fair that our cousin is paying only one-quarter of the expenses for a house her son is using 100% of the time. What I really want, though, is not for my cousin to pay more, but for her son to stop monopolizing the house. How do we dislodge him? — Not Running a Boardinghouse
Dear Not Running a Boardinghouse: I'm going to flip this letter on its head. You and your cousins are extraordinarily lucky. Not only did you inherit a lovely summer house, you managed to split and use it in a way you all considered fair and equitable for a number of years without any formal agreement. I can't tell you how rare an event this is.
So I want to congratulate all of you on your achievement. But, as you are discovering, not all good things last forever. I recommend you pick up a copy of a book called "Saving the Family Cottage" by Stuart Hollander, Rose Hollander and David Fry, which talks about the legal and emotional issues involved in successful long-term ownership of a jointly owned family home.
The authors recommend putting the home in an LLC, a limited liability corporation, with family members each granted shares in the company. When you do that, you will formalize — as part of the rules of the company — financial responsibilities, procedures that will be followed should one of the cousins ever want to sell their shares and, of course, usage rules for the home going forward, including how many weeks each shareowner can use the property, and the division of chores and expenses.
But how do you bring that up without engendering bad feelings and starting a family feud? I'd suggest writing an email to the cousins who are joint owners of the home, pointing out that all of you are getting older and your lives are getting busier, while at the same time the number of people who want to use the property is growing, now that the next generation of kids are becoming adults — something that might well exceed the house's capacity in the future. It's time, you could say, to think about the future while you can do so calmly and at leisure.