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My dad is demanding I return all gifts before moving out

Dear Newsweek, I’m getting ready to move out of my parents’ house. One parent, the primary breadwinner, says that everything that was paid for with his money, including gifts, belongs to him. The other parent, who also works, is scared of that parent but says that gifts and other things that people buy for others belong to their recipients. They share a bank account.

I have bought items for myself, with my own money and gift cards, and most of what I call my possessions were bought by my parents, with my parents’ money, for me. I don’t want them to call the police on me for theft when I leave.

How should I handle my parents’ differences in opinion regarding ownership, especially as it relates to what I can pack without legal trouble?

Alicia, Unknown

Newsweek’s “What Should I Do?” offers expert advice to readers. If you have a personal dilemma, let us know via [email protected]. We can ask experts for advice on relationships, family, friends, money and work and your story could be featured on WSID at Newsweek.

A stock image of a teenager packing her belongings. A Newsweek reader has asked for advice about the ownership of her belongings that were purchased by her parents.
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Moving Out Is a Good Decision

Ruth E. Freeman is founder and president at Peace at Home Parenting Solutions, which delivers classes to encourage better communication. She is also a psychotherapist who has worked with families in crisis to offer parenting education to a variety of situations.

This sad scenario reveals the father’s values quite clearly—money over people. However, the most concerning issue is the fear in this family. The daughter reports that mom is afraid of dad and the daughter herself fears that he will send the police after her. The good news is that the daughter is getting out of the house!

First, let’s be clear that gifts belong to recipients. Second, what is dad going to do with his daughter’s belongings? How are they of use to him? It seems he wants to simply be in control, and claiming these things is one way to do it. But all that aside, hopefully, the daughter will not be intimidated by dad and recognize that he would have a hard time convincing police that his daughter’s belongings are actually his.

Second, if by some remote chance, dad could actually engage the police in this ridiculous endeavor, the daughter can simply return whatever dad is claiming. Hopefully, she will simply take whatever she believes to be hers and let dad deal with it. Probably would be a good idea to move out when he isn’t home and get some friends to help her. When a young adult in the family is about to launch, we at Peace At Home Parenting encourage parents to be supportive, and excited about the future and do what they can to inspire courage and confidence in their children. Dad has fallen seriously short on this approach, but kudos to his daughter for managing to move out anyway!

Gifts Are the Property of the Recipient

Harriet Newman Cohen is a family law attorney based in New York City. She is a founding partner of Cohen Stine Kapoor LLP, providing representation in contested trials and settlements. She is a negotiator and trial attorney who handles all aspects of matrimonial and family law.

Gifts are the property of the recipient. A “gift” is anything your parents or a third party gave you, whether for a birthday, holiday, or just to make you happy. If something was intended for you, given to you, and accepted by you, it’s a gift, and it’s yours, not your parents. The gift has to have been given to you with no strings attached. Otherwise, it’s not a “gift,” it’s a “contract.” As for your personal effects and other belongings, such as books, CDs, electronic equipment, furniture, furnishings, that were not gifts, your receipts will be helpful to prove the property belongs to you.

Parents have an obligation to support their children up to age 18 in most states, 19 in four states, and 21 in New York and three others. Over the age of majority, however, parents do not have a legal obligation to support their children. Whatever they paid for after you reached the age of majority might belong to them, not you, unless they gifted it to you.

A majority of young adults today live with their parents—the highest number since the Depression. They may contribute to paying the rent, food, laundry, and so on. What your parents paid for once you are past the age of majority may not be yours to take unless it was a gift. It sounds like your mother doesn’t have agency over what she’d like to give you.

Unless your parents are splitting up, it’s hard to know what your mother could give you lawfully and without incurring the wrath of your father. If they split up in the future, however, the laws of the state where they live can decide who owns what. Best to have a talk with your parents before you move out, if that is practical, as to what you can take with you and what you may owe them to avoid police activity.

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