My father died six years ago, and his girlfriend took care of him when he was sick and was his executor. We see each other a few times a year, though I don’t feel any real connection to her. Recently she has begun calling herself my stepmother. She’s told me she’s planning to make me her executor and health care proxy and to give me power of attorney, and she seems to expect me to take responsibility for her as she ages. Her financial situation is precarious and she is alone in the world. I have family to worry about (husband, child, an aging mother, and a sister who can’t really function). Can I tell her that I cannot take on this role? It feels like the ultimate rejection, but I just don’t believe it’s fair of her to ask me to be her safety net in old age.
E.M. / New York
You aren’t going to take on this role — that is clear from your letter — so best you tell your not-stepmother this sooner rather than later, so that she can plan for her future.
This will not be pleasant. Not-Stepmother will feel angry and betrayed and fearful. Don’t expect her to agree with you that this is “fair.” In her eyes, it never will be. She cares about her own survival, and your rejection will threaten that, because there isn’t an adequate safety net for the elderly in this country.
You don’t care about what she deserves either. You care about the well-being and survival of yourself and your family, and her needs threaten that. Neither of you is unreasonable, and neither of you has the moral high ground. This is lifeboat ethics.
Think about setting up an appointment with an elder-affairs specialist for Not-Stepmother, to help her begin making alternate plans. This would be a kindness on your part and will reinforce to her the fact that she must plan for herself.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.Looking for a better way to say no? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at firstname.lastname@example.org.