That is, the advice columnist’s answer to an easy ethics question last week was dead wrong. Once again, the advice-giver in question is Philip Galanes, the Times proprietor of Social Q’s, essentially that paper’s version of “Miss Manners.” Galanes, I now see upon googling him, is a novelist and a lawyer. That explains, perhaps, his unfamiliarity with some of the more nuanced aspects of ethics. Here’s the question he received in its entirety:
My brother died last year and bequeathed his entire (small) estate to me. He had one child, a daughter, to whom he left nothing. Feeling sorry for her, I told my niece I would give her half of the estate. (None of this becomes official until April.) But my circumstances have changed dramatically. My husband was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He is undergoing treatment, but we face a very uncertain financial future. I would now like to keep the entire estate. My niece is doing well financially, with many earning years ahead of her, unlike me. Is there a way to tell her I’ve changed my mind so she won’t hate me forever?
The Social Q’s verdict: “…Say, ‘I’m sorry if your father’s will hurt you. I promised you half of my inheritance out of love for you and hoping to heal any pain the will caused. But my husband is seriously ill, and I can’t afford to give you the money now. If I can make it up to you later, or in my estate, I will do it.’….For readers worrying about a verbal contract here, let’s assume B’s promise falls into one of several exceptions that requires agreements to be in writing….”
Here’s the ethical answer:
‘Whether or not your niece hates you is beside the point. While you were not obligated to give her half the inheritance that you deemed rightly hers, you obviously determined that doing so was the equitable, just and generous course of action. The fact that now you have an urgent need for the money that you had decided should be given to her does not change the ethical equation at all, and your new and convenient assumption that she doesn’t need the money, which was not a factor in your original ethics analysis, and properly so, is pure rationalization. (That would be Rationalization #8, The Trivial Trap , or“No harm no foul!.” and perhaps #65,The Pest’s Justification or “He/She/They can take care of themselves”)
Tell me: if you learned now that she had massive medical bills looming, would you reverse yourself again?
If it was right to give her the money before your husband’s diagnosis, it is still right now. Added to that is the fact that you promised to give her half the estate. It doesn’t matter that such an oral promise is legally unenforceable; it is still a promise, she had every reason to rely on it, and may have even made plans and commitments based on it.
Here’s another hypothetical: if you had transferred your late brother’s assets to your niece before your husband’s diagnosis, would you have felt entitled to demand the half you surrendered back? Your unexpected family emergency, ill-timed as it is, does not and should not change the ethical calculations regarding whether your niece deserved a piece of her father’s estate. I’m not going to help you devise a way to extract yourself from an altruistic decision without due consequences. ‘
I will also add, for the ethics blog, not the advice blog, that the woman’s decision to renege on “the right thing to do” because it suddenly involves more sacrifice than she thought it would, as well as Gallane’s acceptance of it, embodies a staggering number of rationalizations—thirty-four, by my count— besides #8 and #65. Among them:
4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”
8A. The Dead Horse-Beater’s Dodge, or “This can’t make things any worse”
11A “I deserve this!” or “Just this once!”
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
13A The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”)
18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”
19B. Murkowski’s Lament, or “It was a difficult decision.”
21. Ethics Accounting, or “I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”
23A. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants”
24. Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”)
25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”
25A. Frederick’s Compulsion or “It’s My Duty!”
28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”
32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing”
32A. Imaginary Consent, “He/She Would Have Wanted It This Way”
32B The Comforting Accusation” or “You would have done the same thing!”
36B. The Patsy’s Rebuke, or “It’s not my fault that you’re stupid!”
38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!”
40. The Desperation Dodge or “I’ll do anything!”
41. The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”
45. The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
51 . The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past.”
52. The Hippie’s License, or “If it feels good, do it!” (“It’s natural”)
53. Tessio’s Excuse, or “It’s just business”
57A. The Utilitarian Cheat or “If it saves just one life”
58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”
59. The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do”
63. Yoo’s Rationalization or “It isn’t what it is”
64. Irrelevant Civility or “But I was nice about it!”
64A. Bluto’s Mistake or “I said I was sorry!”
65 The Pest’s Justification or “He/She/They can take care of themselves”
69. John Lyly’s Rationalization, or “All’s fair in love and war”
5 thoughts on “Dead Wrong: The Withdrawn Bequest Share”
What if the niece wrote in to say, “My aunt promised to give me half of my father’s estate, and she’s going to make good on that promise, but we just found out her husband has pancreatic cancer! Should I refuse her offer?”
That would be exemplary conduct by the niece, but not an absolute obligation and totally independent of the aunt’s unethical decision.
Should you? It’s not mandatory. Not engaging in exemplary ethics isn’t unethical.
I have always followed the rule that once a promise is made it must be kept unless keeping the promise becomes impossible to keep. An example of impossibility would be you die beforehand. Impossibility is not created when it is merely an inconveniece or perceived hardship.
One of my major peeves is when you invite people to an event, they accept but only to cancel at the last minute for what sound like contrived reasons – my daughter came home from college unexpectedly and you know we rarely see her. I know this is minor but it suggests you are just a placeholder until something better comes along.
While I agree with Jack’s call on this, it does bring up the wisdom of breaking from the wishes of the dear departed when settling their estates. My father passed in 2010, and left almost everything to my mother, save a few items of sentimental value bequeathed directly to my siblings and me. Whenever my mother passes, I will respect whatever her will decrees, whether it profits me or not. I know my siblings feel the same way. Of course we are all in our 60s and not depending on any inheritance to make our way in the world. We would (and have) come to one another’s aid when financial crises struck. I feel the questioner’s decision to offer half of the brother’s bequest was made rashly. A better approach to the daughter would have been to respect the wishes of her father, with an offer to try and help her with future financial difficulties if circumstances permit. If her niece is indeed doing well financially she (if she is an ethical person) would likely be content with this approach.
I have seen (in court) many families torn apart by contested wills and have observed that many times the testator was a much better judge of “who deserved what” than the court that ultimately decided the matter.