While he and I have e-mailed back and forth quite a bit, it will soon become obvious why the reader who posed this week's question doesn't want to be identified, even by the city or state in which he lives.
He also hasn't answered one of the basic questions I normally ask readers who write for advice: Because of the potential legal implications, he declines to tell me what he actually did or would have done in the situation he describes, which took place some time ago.
Nor is he even asking for guidance in addressing the question. He merely wants to get my take on an ethical dilemma that seems to place in opposition two basic precepts: to obey the law and to honor one's father. Even so, I found his question too thought-provoking to be ignored.
Here's the story, as he told it to me.
A dying man has a wife afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. For that reason he decides to redo his will - partly because nobody can locate his prior will, written decades earlier, but primarily because that will left his entire estate to his wife, which he no longer wishes to do.
The man spends the morning preparing his new will, making detailed provisions for his wife's care but leaving her no money at all. Instead his money is to go to his children in a trust, to be used for his wife's care.
The completed will is brought back in the afternoon. In the presence of the legally required witnesses he begins to sign it ... only to have his fountain pen run dry. A creature of habit, he has signed every important document in his life with a fountain pen for almost 70 years, and refuses to change his ways now. A search for another fountain pen ensues _ but, before one can be found, the man dies, leaving his new will unsigned.
Though the old will clearly no longer reflects the dead man's intentions, which are clearly defined in the new will, legally that unsigned will is meaningless. If it were ever found, the old will would be legally binding, and the entire estate would go to the man's widow.
The old will cannot be found, however, so legally the man is assumed to have died intestate. Under the rules prevailing in his state, my reader writes, this means that half of his estate will go to his widow, with the other half divided among his children.
Independent of the legal requirements, however, my reader wonders about the ethical situation if the earlier will should be found: "Would it be ethically imperative, acceptable but not imperative or unquestionably verboten for the finder to destroy that earlier will?"
He goes on to ask if it would make any difference whether or not the finder was one of the man's children, who stand to benefit financially from the will not being found.
I am not a lawyer, so I cannot say whether a copy of the earlier will might have been filed with some authority that could easily resolve the matter. Nor can I advise my reader what the penalty might be for suppressing or destroying a valid will.
That wasn't his question, however. It's safe to assume that anyone destroying a will would understand that it was against the law to do so. My reader wonders whether, even so, it would be ethical to destroy the will under these unusual circumstances.
I am always hesitant to give advice that condones breaking the law, but there are cases in which what's legally required is not necessarily the right thing to do. It is almost always the ethical choice to obey the law, but not always, and "It's the law" is rarely if ever in itself a satisfactory answer to a question of ethics.
This case is complicated by the fact that it isn't a clear-cut choice between honoring the dying man's wishes or obeying the letter of the law. His actual wishes, involving the disinheritance of his wife and the establishment of a trust fund, cannot be realized at this stage. His wife will receive at least half of his estate, regardless of whether or not the old will is found. The choice is between no will and an old will, with the former coming closer to what the dying man wanted to accomplish than does the latter.
That being the case, I believe that for someone finding the old will - regardless of whether or not it was a child of the man - the right thing to do would be to consider whether he or she is willing to break the law in order to more closely honor the dying man's wishes and to pursue what she sees as a greater good.
If he or she is willing to live with the potential consequences of that decision, I believe that destroying the old will could be an ethical choice not ethically imperative, but ethically acceptable.c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)