The Perils of Inheriting the “Summer Cottage”

Summer is finally here.  Families are packing up their cars and traveling near and far to throw open the windows of that special place where they may have “summered” for generations. It’s time to let the fresh air in and sweep away the cobwebs.

It’s easy to conjure up a picture of blissful summers spent with Mom and Dad, your siblings, your spouse, and even perhaps the next generation of grandchildren all enjoying " family fun" under the same roof. These shared memories are intertwined with years of peaceful "family togetherness" in your parents’ summer cottage in the mountains or by the lake or the sea. These summers together played a significant roll in your childhood and into your adult years.

These years are usually remembered fondly as “family fun times” with your parents and siblings, and later on with your spouse and your growing family.  These are the years when your parents were still alive and maintained ownership and financial control over this special piece of real estate.

But what happens to the summer cottage when Mom and Dad pass away? 

Regretfully, some siblings don’t “share” well after the death of their parents. Some siblings, attempting to “share” a common property, find out the hard way that sibling harmony actually erodes and sometimes disappears completely when it comes down to sharing the financial nuts and bolts of owning a summer home together.  Playing “nice” often becomes a thing of the past.

The notion of passing down a summer home to more than one child can become very destructive when a family doesn’t deal with the problems that surface well before things get out of hand.  Not everyone has the same vision of how to successfully share a common property. Not everyone plays well in the same sandbox when the parents depart.

So what’s fair? How can you create peaceful resolutions for generations to come? The bottom line is what’s the plan?

Family bliss can easily fall apart when it comes to co-ownership. Compromise seems to be the only real solution on all fronts. But even compromise quickly becomes very difficult when there are multiple families involved and an ever-growing number of family members of all ages and idiosyncrasies.

There are those families with one side of the family with the financial means to keep the place in tip-top shape, and those who don’t have the means. There are those family members that have certain expectations for keeping the cottage and property clean and orderly, with the fridge well stocked and the supply cabinet in order, and those that don’t.  There are those with differing views as to how to actually make the sort of financial decisions that are necessary to maintain a home - such as whether or not the cottage needs a new roof, or needs a new bathroom this year, or whether it can wait a few more years.

There are those on one side of the family that plan ahead and those that don’t. And those who don’t mind hosting a few extra summer guests and those that lay down the law that the summer cottage is for family use only. There are also those that have kids and those that don’t. And adding the stress of scheduling the summertime occupancy of the rooms, as well as determining when the cottage will be opened up and who will be assigned to do the work involved, can create all kinds of animosity.

The biggest elephant in the room is finances. When the parents are no longer around, the kids need to come together to figure out how to pay for (and make) repairs as well as set up funding for all the other costs associated with maintaining the property. This is much easier if the parents put a plan together before they are gone.

Adding to these complex issues is the problem of ownership that surfaces when one of the siblings passes away. Will the surviving spouse get that piece of the summer cottage? What happens if there is a divorce or a second marriage? What about the step-kids and blended families? Sometimes it’s not even the siblings who are arguing about what’s going on - sometimes it’s actually the spouses of the siblings that are creating more conflict.

It’s a delicate and often emotional topic, but a necessary one to discuss well in advance - before it’s too late and the next generation is left to hash it out.

If you own a summer home, do your kids a favor and figure out a detailed plan to pass on your treasured summer home.  A decisive plan will help reduce the stress and predictable arguments that will occur amongst your children, their spouses, and the next generation when you are no longer here and in charge. 

Or, as an alternative, make a plan to sell the summer cottage and use the proceeds to "rent your fun" for years to come.