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August 29, 2013
The Real Issue
Newlywed Roommates
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My in-laws are deceased, and my husband and his siblings manage their former home as a rental property. A few weeks ago, they decided to let my newly-married nephew, who is my relation, not theirs, rent the house. They made a gentleman’s agreement and promised him the house, but nothing was put on paper.

My nephew and his new wife are very grateful, as the rent is very low. And my husband and I, and the newlyweds, have spent the last month painting and fixing up the house.

However, one of my husband’s brothers is now insisting that my nephew and his wife share the house with his soon-to-be married daughter and her new husband. This young lady actually suggested it! She doesn’t even know my nephew or his new wife! She and her father say that sharing the house is acceptable because each couple will have its own bedroom and bathroom. They see no problem with both couples sharing the kitchen and living areas.

This brother is the executor of the estate and legally controls what happens to the house. How can we respond to him?


Your nephew should tell your husband’s brother, or niece, or whoever else approaches him with this plan, that sharing the house with another couple is unacceptable. He should not be tactful or gracious. He should say, “No. That is completely unacceptable. No way.”

This blunt response is not rude; it is a perfectly correct way to respond to an insane proposal by a landlord.

If your husband’s brother pushes back, your nephew should say, “No. We have an agreement. You rented me the house, and I just spent a month painting it and getting it ready to live in. It is totally unacceptable for anyone else to move in. Absolutely not.”

This will be an excellent opportunity for your nephew to practice dealing with unscrupulous landlords, which is a valuable life skill. If is he inexperienced in this area, you might help him plan his response, and teach him that this is not the kind of situation where he needs to be accommodating. It is a situation where he is correct to insist on his way.

He does not owe your husband’s family any reasons. “I have already rented the house” is reason enough. But here are his reasons anyway.

One: He cannot — will not — be alone in the house with another man’s wife. Nor will he require his wife to worry about being alone in the house with this other woman’s husband.

A cardinal rule of marriage is that it is inappropriate for the wife of one couple and the husband of another couple to be alone in a house together. Married couples should avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and a man alone in a house with another man’s wife is the very picture of impropriety.

It is also an opportunity for actual impropriety. And for false accusations. That is why married men in the Church do not visit women alone: they go in pairs or with their wives. And why married men, and women to whom they are not married, do not ride alone in cars together. Or go anywhere alone together.

Is this rule uptight and demeaning? No. It is sensible. It is respectful. It is loyal. It prevents the unimaginable from happening.

(There is an obvious exception where a plumber or handyman needs to work in the house while only one spouse is at home. Even then, the at-home spouse should keep a professional distance and let the workers work.)

In your nephew’s case, if the two couples share a house, this rule will be impossible to follow. There is no way to prevent the wife of one couple from sometimes being alone with the husband of the other couple. I am shocked that a father would even consider such an arrangement for his daughter.

Two: He and his wife do not want to share a house. They want to make decisions about their new home and family independent of the demands, needs, or expectations of other people. What time is dinner? Will there be TV on Sunday? Sports on Sunday? Will the thermostat be set to 70 or 80? Who will unclog the toilet?

They do not want to be modestly dressed every time they go to the kitchen for a drink of water or piece of toast. They don’t want to whisper or retreat to their bedroom just to have a private conversation. They don’t want to negotiate cooking, cleaning, entertaining, sleep habits, TV watching, decorating, and space with another couple. They want to control their possessions and how gently those possessions are used.

Three: They already made an agreement, and your nephew does not agree to change it.

I don’t know what state you are in, so your nephew needs to ask a local attorney if his oral lease agreement is enforceable. Not that he will necessarily spend time and money on a lawsuit, but he must know his legal right to the property in order to understand his options.

If, under your state law, the oral lease is legal and binding, your nephew has the absolute right to exclude this other couple — and anyone else, for that matter — from the house. If your husband’s brother wishes to terminate the lease and evict your nephew, he must follow the legal procedure for doing so.

If the oral lease is not binding, your nephew needs to understand that his legal options are limited. And that he should memorialize any future lease in writing.

Also, your nephew should find out if local zoning ordinances and occupancy laws prohibit two couples from sharing one dwelling.

Your nephew, unfortunately, seems to be caught in a family drama that has nothing to do with him — indeed, it’s not even his family. Nevertheless, your husband’s brother seems to see your nephew’s tenancy as a kind of “win” for your husband that leaves the brother and his daughter worse off. So he is trying to even the score by making sure his daughter also gets the benefit of cheap rent.

I can guarantee he would not have even considered a sharing arrangement with some other renter. And I can almost guarantee that what this brother really wants is for your nephew to pull out of the rental agreement when faced with another couple as roommates.

The obvious way to avoid this problem in the future is to raise the rent to market value. If the house were priced comparably to similar rentals in your area, renting it would no longer be a coup or a favor: It would just be a business transaction.

Instead, you have a situation that reveals your husband’s niece — and her father — to be one of two things. One, she is totally insane and immature for even wanting to share a house with another newlywed couple. If she doesn’t want to live alone with her new husband, she should rethink the marriage. Or two, she is a selfish brat and a bully who knows she will be able to force out this other couple if she and daddy insist that she be allowed to live there.

No matter what her reasons, or her father’s reasons, the only way to respond is to calmly stand up to him. No one needs to fight or get ugly or dredge up the past. Or threaten a lawsuit to wrest control of the estate (although that could be an option in certain situations).

Instead, your husband and any other of his siblings who are involved in the decision should tell this brother, “Clive, we already agreed that Brandon and Bethany could rent the house. We all agreed to that, and we can’t go back on our word.”

If he protests that sharing is reasonable, you can say, “It would be totally inappropriate if Madeline and Matt moved in — you can’t have two young couples living in such close quarters. It’s just out of the question.”

If he protests that the house should be used for “family first” (and your nephew is not their family), remind him that “family first” is not the point — the point is you have already rented the house to someone else. Unless he wants to evict them, the house is no longer his to rent until their lease is up.

Also, that the family (I hope) has a reputation for honesty, and evicting the renters so his daughter can move in is not honest or fair to them, especially after they have painted and repaired the house.

(It would also teach this daughter — who is allegedly an adult — a terrible lesson about what it is acceptable to do in order to get her way. But that’s another column entirely. As is the proper application of the maxim that a breach of contract is not a moral issue.)

What you should not do is acquiesce to keep Clive happy. I suspect that many potential confrontations with Clive over the years have been forgone in the name of keeping peace. But there is no reason to just agree with him and let him have his way in order to avoid a conflict.

Even though your husband and his other siblings have no actual power to make this brother do anything, they need to stand up for what is right, simply because it is right. In the end, if he insists on using his unilateral legal authority to evict your nephew and install his daughter, it should be clear that he is doing so over the objections of the group.

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