An Ethics Conflict Conundrum: The Fraudulent Friend

From “The Ethicist” (that’s the New York Times Magazine’s ethics advice columnist, his name is Kwame Anthony Appiah, and he’s not bad) comes a new version of an eternal ethics conflict that I have encountered both hypothetically and in life:

My friend told me that she and her husband, who combined earn around $500,000, asked their son’s stepmother to declare him on her taxes for the last two years so that he could get more financial aid for college. Their son doesn’t even live with the stepmother, and she provides no support.

I just learned that her son is now getting a full grant to a very expensive private college. I’m supposed to take a weekend trip with my friend in a few weeks, but I’m so angry about this I don’t know if I can speak to her. Is this fraud? What is my responsibility in this situation?

“The Ethicist” waffles and settles on,

…I’d guess the college, if notified, would investigate the situation, and students found guilty of lying on their application risk losing their spot. So your friend, her husband, her son and the stepmother would all be exposed, potentially, to life-upending sanctions.

Those penalties might not be unjust, but they would be a very substantial burden to lay on a friend on the basis of information she supplied because she trusted you. We can be appalled by behavior without wanting to be the ones to police it, and I expect that’s where you come out. Still, you should at least tell her that what she and her family are doing is abhorrent, as well as unlawful, and that they shouldn’t do it next year.

He’s ducking the question. ‘Don’t do it again?’ The more serious the crime, the more serious the penalties, the less responsibility you have to report it?

This is an ethics conflict where multiple ethical systems point in different directions. The Golden Rule tells us it’s wrong to be a “snitch,” but knowing about a criminal act—this one is fraud—and helping to keep it secret is a breach of one’s societal duties. It also makes you an accessory after the fact. As a legal ethics teacher, I frequently remind lawyers that the ethics rules make reporting serious misconduct by another lawyer mandatory; still, lawyers usually concoct rationalizations to avoid doing it unless they really don’t like the unethical lawyer.

As a high school, college and laws student, the number of times I was aware of, and even witnessed, illegal conduct by friends, room mates and peers would fill a fair sized book. Should I have reported my bonging friends to authorities? What if their crimes were more serious, like theft, battery, kidnapping, mayhem, rioting or worse?

I was a guest on Montel William’s syndicated talk show to discuss a news story in which a mother turned in her son to the police for major drug dealing. Montel made an impressive speech about a parent’s duty of loyalty to a child, an during the next break I asked the host if he really wouldn’t report his child for a serious crime. He said, “Of course I would.” And he winked at me.

There are so many variables in these situations that absolutism doesn’t work. Child? Spouse? Parent? Cousin? Estranged versions of any of those? Friends? Close friends? Lifetime friends? Friends who have always been there for you in a crisis? What crime? How many people will be hurt by it, and how badly? How catastrophic will the consequences be to your relative or freind if you do report?

If you do not report, should you inflict your own punishment? “Maybe this isn’t a friendship worth holding onto,” The Ethicist says, continuing his lack of certitude on this issue.

Most of us, including me, would probably handle this problem on a case by case basis. Is that the most ethical alternative?

37 thoughts on “An Ethics Conflict Conundrum: The Fraudulent Friend

  1. I got puzzled right here:

    “My friend told me that she and her husband, who combined earn around $500,000, asked their son’s stepmother….”

    Who is the stepmother?

    If the friend and her husband have a child, who is this third-party step-mother?

    What am I missing?


      • Junkmailfolder:

        That is still not making sense, because it says the friend and her husband have a child.

        It seems to me there is a typo somewhere.

        This could be important because if it not a step-mother, there may not be something wrong here.

        But, I don’t see how it would be the birth father’s wife, because she says her husband has the child. But, if the father is married to the step-mother, why would the writer emphasize that she and the father make too much money.

        And, why isn’t the father living with the step-mother if she is married to the dad?

        Now, if the typo is that “step-mother” is actually the birth mother and the writer is, in fact, a step-mother, there may be nothing wrong here (or, at least, less wrong).


      • “It doesn’t change the ethics issue.”

        I am not positive about that.

        If the “step-mother” is actually the birth mother, dependency can be assigned between the divorced parents for tax purposes, whether or not they live with the parent. That is often done so that a higher earning non-custodial parent can get a better tax deduction. Presumably, this is done to benefit the child (as well as the parents) by maximizing the value of the tax deduction. There may be a question as to whether this is ethical; it is certainly not considered illegal by the IRS (as far as I know); it is also pretty much a routine consideration in divorce cases.

        By analogy, a mother and father could decide between themselves a non-custodial, non-supporting parent could claim the child on her taxes for some non-tax reason, as well (such as educational benefits).


        • I’m pretty sure dependents can only be claimed on taxes if they live with you for six months and 1 day (I remember this being a thing when we had foster children). If they don’t live with them, I pretty sure they can’t claim them. I’m sure its done this way to keep different parents from claiming the same children on taxes.

          • Yes, this is the case. By law, you don’t decide who claims someone. It’s determined based on where they live.

            • Not true. The court ordered that my parents had to claim me every other year for tax purposes, or any other manner that they could agree on. I lived with my mom, but the court said my dad got to claim me on odd years and my mom on even ones or something kind of like that. I honestly didn’t understand the court mandated rules when my dad was teaching me how to file taxes and determined that it was simpler to just not have those problems for me.

              • Well, what Junkmailfolder says May be true legally. As a practical matter, I suspect that if the parties agree to a certain arrangement, the IRS will likely neither know nor care.


                • It all depends on who is assigned to audit you (in the unlikely event you’re audited). To be fair though, I’m not sure any auditor would request proof that a dependent lived with someone for 6 months and a day, so for all intents and purposes, you’re probably right.

                  To Sarah though, I learned something new today–there is an exception for divorced parents. Essentially all the normal rules apply, except the non-custodial parent can claim the child if the custodial parent provides a written declaration with their taxes that they won’t claim the child(ren). The court must have ordered your mom to provide that on odd years.

          • This can be very simple or very complicated.

            But in its basics, if a child’s parents together support the child they can decide between themselves who claims the child as a dependent. As long as only one does so the IRS really won’t care. Note, that a step-mother is not one of the child’s parents.

            However, there are certain tax credits (like earned income credit) that can only be claimed by the custodial parent. Also the non-custodial parent cannot claim head of household status based on that child.

            As a general rule, the custodial parent has a presumptive right to claim the child.

            The IRS gets involved when more than one person claims the exemption (and I have to believe the IRS absolutely hates these situations). If one is the second person to file claiming the child as a dependent, the IRS will reject that return — to then try to claim the child, one has to file on paper and provide evidence why. The IRS will then require evidence from the other person and retire to its padded cell to make the decision.

            There are a number of tie-breaker rules and circumstances (I just saw one where there were 20 different cases as examples under that rule). It can get very complicated and very messy.

            In the most common situations where one parent claims the child or they alternate years — the IRS does. not. care.


            Yeah, this got long and involved, but I have always maintained that exemptions and filing status can be some of the most complicated situations in the tax law.


            To tie this back to the current situation, yes it is possible for a step mother to claim a child legally, but it’s harder to envision that when the child doesn’t live with the step mother.

    • Birth parents are divorced and both remarried in this example — I presume. Right now, financial aid only looks to the custodial parent’s income. Many divorced couples game this system by having the child live 51% of the year with the ex that makes the least income. However, this system is changing (next year I think?), and FASFA will run aid calculations using both household’s income. Even this is not a necessarily fair result for kids though because some divorced parents are unwilling to contribute to college, but students will not be eligible for aid under the new formula. Loans aren’t available for kids without a co-signer (beyond limited government loans), so many of these kids might not be able to attend a 4 year college. The change needed to come obviously because of how the old system was being abused, but it is unfortunate that many kids will not have the same access to college as they once did.

  2. 1. The mother and step-father should never have asked the step-mother in the first place. I assume the father likely died sometime after he remarried, otherwise there wouldn’t be a step-mother and otherwise the mother would have had to ask the father not the step-mother.

    2. The son should have told the mother not to do this.

    3. The son should have told the step-mother to say no.

    4. The step-mother should have said no.

    5. Frankly the fact that the mother and step father told this person that they did this shows me that they trusted the person they told to cover this up which I think is a reflection of the personal integrity of the person they told. Why would they think that something like this, fraud, would remain confidential if they didn’t think the person they told lacked personal integrity.

    6. I would have told the mother and step-father that I would not lie to cover this up if an authority asked me about it and that would likely be the last time I ever saw them.

    Some years ago I walked out of my close friends house with the full intent of never going back because of something that person said to me that I didn’t think reflected true friendship, I literally said “If that’s what you think friendship is, then we can’t be friends anymore.” and I walked out. A few days later my friends wife profusely apologized but my “friend” refused to. We didn’t speak again until a couple of months a month before he died of cancer which was a bout 11-12 year later; he called and wanted to visit, I agreed, he apologized and I accepted his apology. We had a few nice visits before he died.

    • Wrong. An accessory after the fact is one who “harbors, protects, or assists” a person who has already committed an offense. Not revealing the offense when doing so would end it—this is an ongoing fraud—indeed protects and assists the perpetrator. If your point, other than to just be contrary, is that accessory status like this is seldom prosecuted, that’s true. It’s still being an accessory.

      • Uh no. This friend has no obligation to report this crime and it’s not illegal to not report a crime you know has happened, is happening, or may happen.

        They’re not assisting, harboring, or protecting them.

        Not reporting a crime isn’t “protecting” That more involves lying to the police etc.

        You’re way off here.

        • As I said, it isn’t usually considered a prosecutable crime in this scenario. It is still, by definition, being an accessory, just as knowing someone was about to commit a fraud and not reporting it can constitute being an accessory before the fact. Of course it assists and protects the wrongdoer. Look up “assist” and “protect.” If it were not an ongoing crime—but it is—then accessory wouldn’t apply.

          I am still checking to find a definitive authority that would say that being informed of an ongoing fraud and saying nothing would NOT meet the requirements of being an accessory. Can’t find anything yet. If you have a cite, that would be appreciated.

          It’s still a tangential issue to the post.

          • Again, no. You’re wrong here.

            Knowing someone committed a crime, or is currently committed a crime does not make someone an accessory.

            There is no duty to report a crime unless you have a license requirement to report things.

            In general, for most people, in most states, no there’s no affirmative requirement that you do anything if you witness a crime or the results of a crime or know a crime is being committed.

            That’s also not what accessory before the fact means either and doesn’t apply here.

            • There is an ethical and societal duty. Oh, did you not notice that this is an ethics blog? I’m sorry, I thought the title made it clear.

              Knowing someone is in the process of committing a crime and doing nothing to stop it is aiding and assisting in that crime. Doing so is not itself likely to be charged or prosecuted. It still is wrong, unethical, and a breach of a societal duty. And nothing I wrote suggested otherwise, though I should have been clearer for those determined to misconstrue what I write.

          • Also, the legal definition under accessory after the fact regarding assists and protects has to do lying to the FBI or during an investigation, or assisting to help cover up the crime or hiding thems.

            Not reporting a crime is NOT considered “assisting” or “protecting” in this sense.

            The Merriam Webster definition is irrelevant here.

            • It’s obviously not irrelevant (I wasn’t quoting the MW definition), since I didn’t say, anywhere, that I was referring to the legal, federally prosecutable offense of. The quote: “helping to keep it secret is a breach of one’s societal duties. It also makes you an accessory after the fact.” That means, “It makes you someone who is protecting and assisting a fraud by not taking action to stop it when you have the ability to do so.” I didn’t say it was a crime, because that isn’t the point. The point is that not taking action to stop it when you have the ability to do so is unethical.

              The college roommates of one of the Boston Marathon bombers were interrogated as possible accessories because they had knowledge that the guy was considering something destructive and did nothing. In the end, it was determined that no crime was committed that was worth prosecuting. One or more of them still might have been able to stop the tragedy—not a crime, but maybe assisting and protecting with silence.

                • If I meant legally, I would have said, “legally,” having been a criminal lawyer and all. See, unless I specify otherwise, I’m talking about ethics here, hence the title, “Ethics Alarms.” If I talk about duties, I’m talking abut ethical duties, unless I say “legal duty.”

                  • Ohhh okay so you used a very specific legal term, but made up your own definition for it in your head that no one else uses, then spent a few comments arguing with me that the legal term does apply here, but then said you didn’t really mean it in the legal sense this whole time once you realized it doesn’t legally apply.

                    Why can’t you just admit you were wrong?

                    • Amy,
                      It appears to a bystander to this conversation that your purpose is to undermine respect for the blog author. If this is how you choose to argue on Ethics Alarms I suspect you won’t last very long.

                    • I said what I meant to say, and it was accurate. You decided to deliberately take it to mean what it did not mean, though I was willing to discuss your interpretation anyway. Many terms have a term of art meaning and a general meaning. Just for you, I will now post an example of how the distinction between ethical responsibility (and the act of being an accessory) is separate from the corresponding legal responsibility.

                    • Amy,
                      Please read the information in the link below with an emphasis on the section titled “Ethics Alarms Discipline” and the Banning: section. Here is one of the sentences for your reading pleasure…

                      …Insulting me, in particular by questioning my integrity, honesty, objectivity, intentions, motives, qualifications, or credentials.


                      You seem like an intelligent person but I think you’re skating on thin ice Amy.

                  • It was only accurate in your head.

                    “Accessory after the fact” is a specific legal term and you know it. No one uses it the way you are now claiming to have used it.

                    And even if you did, you would have just said “oh I don’t mean in the legal sense.” Why didn’t you just say that?

                    Because you obviously knew I was talking in the legal sense since you used a highly specific legal term and then spent time debating with me that it was illegal.

                    • You are welcome to believe that if it reinforces your self-esteem. That’s not what happened, or what I was thinking. Now, do you actually have anything substantive to say on the topic of the post? So far, you have only entered complaints about whether “government supported” is misleading when NPR is supported by the government; falsely claimed that my statement that Budweiser lost billions in value after the trans influencer debacle because it gained some of the billions back, and now my use of “accessory” was inaccurate. None of these cavils contributed anything useful or helpful to the posts involved. Posting just to criticize tangential details and to harass the host here is the essence of trolling. I’m trying hard to give you the benefit of the doubt, but a substantive, positive contribution to the actual ethics issues in these posts would sure help. So far you’re 0 for 3. I know you can do it. It appears that you have no interest in doing it.

                    • An interesting observation…

                      After Amy’s rhetorical deficiencies and behavior are directly confronted, instead of changing her rhetorical behavior, Amy chooses to double down on her rhetorical behavior and then apparently run for the hills.

                      Just looking at Amy’s comments in a couple of threads, it appears that Amy was on some kind of mission to discredit and defame Jack.

                      Amy’s behavior is similar to that of a hit & run troll.

                      TROLLING: verb Posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion to draw attention to themself and/or for their own amusement.

                    • I’m giving Amy the chance to prove otherwise: if her next comment is constructive and on topic, she’ll have the presumption of not being an irredeemable troll, just a reader who started out trolling. If the next comment is like the others, though, picking out some tangential statement or phrasing to bicker about, its strike four, and she’s out.

                    • Jack wrote, “I’m giving Amy the chance to prove otherwise: if her next comment is constructive and on topic, she’ll have the presumption of not being an irredeemable troll, just a reader who started out trolling.”

                      I greatly respect your dedication to this kind of fair play; however, I’ve seen this kind of behavior so many times across so many different comment threads across the internet that I’m not holding my breath. The behavior seems almost like chapter & verse tactical scripture straight out of the holy Book of Trolling.

  3. The applicable adage here is “See something, say something.” 0f course she should report it and inform her friend that she is in fact doing so. To stand by and let this fraud continue denies a more needing and dare say more honest individual from receiving the grant given to this student.
    If she loses this families friendship, so be it, tier dishonesty does not deserve friendship

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