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My dead uncle's widow wants me to pay for renos he didn't finish. Should I?

The question

My uncle started some renovations for us but couldn't finish them because he was dying of cancer. It was never clear how much we owed him, and we felt abandoned by him with a hole in our house. We tried to be honest about our feelings but that didn't go over well. Our relationship became strained after that point. Before he died he gave us a bill with a bunch of seemingly random receipts. We paid that but now my aunt has delivered another bill with even more random receipts, more than nine months later. She didn't even give it to us, she passed it along through my dad. My wife is very irritated and I'm very annoyed. Money is tight as always so what should we do?

The answer

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You've come to the right guy. It's weird to think about, but I've lived in a domicile under some form of renovation more or less continuously for the past 18 years.

The first house my wife and I bought was a real "fixer-upper"– to put it mildly (another way to put it, as one schadenfreuderrific frenemy, we heard, was telling everyone: "Dave and Pam bought a real dump!").

Just to give a sense of what we were up against: We thought the windows in the living room door were painted brown for privacy's sake. But it turned out to be a nicotine-based goo we had to scrape off with putty knives – and the guy who owned it quit smoking in 1963! Our current house – the one we bought next – wasn't in much better shape. We've been renovating it pretty solidly for the past 13 years. Remember the character of Eldin from Murphy Brown, the painter who was always in her apartment for six seasons? We've got a guy like that. "Brad the Builder." He's a member of the family at this point.

All of which to say I have extensive experience with renovation-related matters. And I thought I'd heard it all – until now. Receiving receipts from the estate of your contractor: That, I admit, is a new one.

But I see this as an excellent opportunity for renovation of your relationship with your auntie.

Renovations, however, often must start with demolition, and I'm afraid I have to start by swinging a bit of a – what are those really big hammer-thingies called again? Oh, yeah, sledgehammer – in your direction.

You say you felt "abandoned" and "with a hole in your house" after the man working on it had to suspend proceedings in order to take care of the business of dying of cancer.

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That is one of the craziest and most selfish things I've ever heard – and I've been in this business a while.

What about the hole he was about to leave in his soon-to-be widow's life and heart? As he's dying of cancer, you decide to be "honest" about him leaving you in the lurch as your contractor. A hard conversation even to imagine: "We're sorry about your condition – but we're also upset over the loss of momentum on our renovation."

And you almost sound surprised that "didn't go over well."

As for wondering why you received your receipts through a third party? Here's a hint: It may be because the widow is so furious at your insensitivity she can't even look at you, let alone talk to you.

In order to repair your relationship with your aunt, you need first to take your own personalities "back to the studs." Throw your irritation and annoyance in the dumpster. Then reach into your tool kit and take out some humility and compassion.

Then find a way – perhaps with your father as mediator – to see her. Apologize for your insensitivity.

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Then, and only then, discuss the matter of receipts.

I do think even though your uncle died on the job you're entitled to only pay for services rendered and goods purchased. I don't know what you mean by "random receipts," but if your late uncle paid for materials for the reno, sorry but you're on the hook for that money.

(It almost sounds like you aren't getting charged for his labour, but that can't be right: That would make your attitude too crazy, and I'd have to recommend a psychiatrist for you and your partner. Maybe a whole team, with lab coats and clipboards etc.)

"Money is tight" everywhere. Doesn't mean we don't have to settle our just debts, especially those we've contracted to take, especially those with family. You need to bury this bad blood in the backyard and lay a foundation for future friendly familial relations.

Bottom line: Settle accounts with her, as fairly as you can, perhaps with your father as the ultimate arbiter of what's "fair," bearing in mind that one day you will also have to settle with your own Maker.

What am I supposed to do now?

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