Sunday, July 08, 2018

Should recipient keep an unexpected inheritance?

Long before she died, a professor who had taught at a small college in the Midwest started making a list of what she wanted done with her belongings once she had died. She had no living relatives, but she had taught at the same college -- the one she had herself attended as an undergraduate -- for more than four decades.

Upon her death, the professor left a sizeable amount of money to the college. But her belongings were dispersed among dozens of former students according to her wishes. Pieces of antique furniture went to some students; settings of bone china tea cups and saucers, framed prints and paintings to others. By the time the executor of her estate was through, the professor's belongs were shipped off to their new owners, more often than not arriving as a surprise to the recipient.

The professor left several hundred books and unpublished papers and assorted documents to one of her students who had gone on to become a professor himself. Over the years, he sorted through the books and documents. While he didn't believe there was anything of great monetary value, the sentimental value of the material was incalculable.

Among the materials was an inexpensive plastic sheath in which the professor had left assorted museum and travel brochures as well as programs to various events she had attended over the years. Her student had set the sheath aside and it sat for years on a bookcase in his home office.

Recently, when he was cleaning and organizing his office after a semester of teaching and papers piling up everywhere, he came across the sheath and decided to take a closer look at its contents. All the brochures and programs were still there, but when he had emptied the sheath, he noticed a plastic Ziploc bag at the bottom that he'd never noticed before.

When he took a closer look, he found that the bag contained two Wedgwood portrait medallions (one apparently a limited edition) and one sterling silver commemorative medallion. A quick search on the internet revealed that the value of the items was not insubstantial.

Since his professor had been so intentional about how she had dispersed her belongings, he was fairly certain that the medallions hadn't been sent to him in error. But because they were so personal in nature, related to the work his professor had spent decades doing at her college, and were also of some value, he wondered whether it was wrong not to ask someone at the college if they would like to have them.

It might be a kind gesture, but the professor's student has no obligation to offer to return the medallions found among the papers and books he was left to the college. As he points out, his professor was meticulously deliberate in directing who should receive her various belongings upon her death. If she had wanted the medallions to go to the college, she would have left such instructions.

The former student should decide if he wants to keep his inheritance or to donate them to the college. The decision is his and his alone and he should make it with a clear conscience and the knowledge that his former professor trusted him to do the right thing. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


No comments: