Sunday, August 09, 2009


"Am I being greedy?"

That's how a reader in New York begins his e-mail message to me. He asks because, according to his mother, he is indeed being a greedy son.

His 75-year-old mother has decided to begin distributing her assets to her three children while she is still alive. She began the process nine years ago, and told her offspring that she would give the money based on "a principle of equality."

Until recently my reader had received $5,000 a month from his mother. His sister received $6,000 a month and his brother $4,000 a month.

My reader and his brother are currently unemployed. The brother received an interest-free loan from their mother for a real-estate deal, something my reader says he also asked for but was denied. His sister owns a sizable business and has significant assets of her own, including homes and cars.

From 2003 through 2005, my reader says, he received $6,000 a month, the same as his sister. His mother lowered the number, however, because his expenses were lower than those of his sister, who pays private-school tuition for her children.

Now, because of the recession, their mother has decided to stop giving any money to my reader or to his brother. She continues, however, to give $6,000 a month to their sister to cover her children's tuition.

Seeing this as unfair, my reader told his mother that, if she is going to distribute the assets of her estate to his sister, she should do the same for him and his brother.

His mother's response: Don't be greedy.

"Am I really greedy?," he writes. "Any greedier than my brother or sister?"

Is he being greedy? I don't know - that's a question of motivation that only he can answer. I'm not even prepared to make a judgment call on whether he's acting greedy, which is a slightly different question.

The ethical question here is whether the mother of these three adult children is acting fairly in the way she's doling out her assets or whether her son is justified in feeling that he's being discriminated against.

I don't believe he is. It's her money, and she is entitled to distribute it any way she wants, whether in her will or while she's still alive.

So she isn't acting unethically, which isn't to say that she's acting wisely. By doling out cash disbursements to her children on an ongoing basis, by giving different amounts to different children and by changing the ground rules as she goes along, she's inviting rifts among her children and between her and them. Whether she's consciously manipulating them by making them dependent upon her or merely failing to see the consequences of her approach, it's a recipe for problems.

None of which changes the fact that this choice is hers and hers alone to make. There is no rule that says that what you give one child, you must give another. It would be unreasonable to ask my reader not to feel slighted when a monthly check goes to his sister but not to him, but he isn't being cheated. He's not entitled to any of her money simply because he's her son.

In retrospect, the right thing for the son to do would have been not only to live on the substantial stipend he has been receiving for the past nine years but also to put a little aside in case the well ever ran dry.

As it is, the right thing for him to do is to be grateful for what he has been given, to appreciate anything he may be given in the future and, in the meantime, to figure out a way to stand on his own two feet. If he can manage that, his cutoff of funds may be the best thing his mother ever gave him.

His mother didn't ask for my advice. If she had, though, I'd have told her that the right thing for her to do is to make a decision about what she wants to do with her money, make that decision clear to her children and then stick to it. She's free to do with her money whatever she likes, but even the least popular decision will cause less turmoil than a constantly changing plan.

If her children don't like the way she's going about it, though, they would do well to learn to live within their own means, insulating themselves from their mother's whims, over which they do not now have and will not ever have any real control.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Bill Jacobson said...

I understand the kneejerk reaction where your reader feels that the change in distribution is unfair but it is entirely his Mom's decision on how she disposes of her assets. That she has chosen to make those arrangements while she still has capacity to do so is commendable.

I need to point out that for the last 9 years, the sons have received $4k & $5k+ per month respectively or $432k & $564k a piece... Their complaint is that they didn't get enough? Yes, that's greedy.

The mother surely has her own rationale beyond the change in economy for cutting off these grown men's "allowances" but I suspect a few factors may play into it:

1. They already received half a million dollars each from her over the last 9 years.

2. The continued payments to their sister are probably at least as much providing for her grandchildren and their education as for the daughter.

3. Perhaps the mother believes that her previous generosity has stunted her sons' motivations to find work.

If this actually bothers the sons, I recommend they sit down with their mother to understand her thinking... There's nothing like inheritance issues to split a family.

What bothers me is the entitlement that the son feels... his glass is half a million dollars full and all he can see is what he didn't get. That is per se greed and I commend the mother for tackling the issue. She may just teach her son a lesson yet, if he's willing to learn it.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

$5k or $6K a month to a grown child? Able-bodied and able-minded adults who get this kind of money should count their lucky stars, keep working, and put the bulk of the extra money into rainy day savings or something solid like paying down the principle of a mortgage.

I do understand that the writer feels like he's being treated unfairly. But Mr. Seglin has it exactly right. Mom's money is inadvertently manipulating all sorts of things. In any event, the writer doesn't "deserve" a specific amount. It's all a gift.