Sunday, February 28, 2010


A reader from Hawaii has, along with her brother, decided to put up for auction several valuable items that were left them by their father upon his death. Neither my reader nor her brother knew about many of these items that their father had in his possession before he died.

The father's sister, my reader's aunt, is now claiming that some of the items should have been hers, since her brother refused to cooperate in settling their parents' estate.

Their parents had not divided up their belongings in their wills, it seems, and left no indication as to what should be left to which child. Instead my reader's father and aunt had to go through the many items and try to divide them equitably.

"A number of things were divided between them," my reader writes. "But my father had easier access to the property, so he cleaned out the house. He then refused to meet with his sister and go through those items, which turned out to be the most valuable."

The sister consulted a lawyer at the time, but never pursued the issue. She has no intention of instituting legal action against my reader and her brother, but feels that they have a moral obligation to set matters right.

"All of this has been corroborated," my reader writes. "Learning of my father's deceitfulness has been awful news for my brother and me."

While she "feels" for her aunt and for her daughter, my reader's cousin, she also believes that the issue should have been settled by the previous generation, not by hers. She has considered giving her aunt a few valuable items, but wonders if that would open up a Pandora's box in terms of what her aunt believes she is entitled to.

"Am I morally obligated," she asks, "to share the auction proceeds with my aunt?"

My reader's predicament should serve as a lesson to any parents of multiple children: A carefully detailed will is essential. If no indication is made about how their assets should be divided upon their death, it can result in a rift among surviving children that stretches into subsequent generations.

In other words, my reader is wrong in thinking that her father's generation should have settled this issue. It was her grandparents who should have made clear how they meant their possessions to be allotted.

As to my reader's situation, her father has left two legacies to her and to her brother: the assets which they are now preparing to auction and the ethical obligation to set matters right with their aunt. In accepting the one legacy, they are ethically bound to accept the other.

That their aunt has no intention of pursuing whatever legal rights she may have is irrelevant. If my reader and her brother simply auctioned off the goods, divided the proceeds and moved on, they would be wealthier - but they would also be perpetuating the injustice wrought by their father, and presumably would further strain their relationship with their aunt and cousin.

My reader says that she is convinced that her father was in the wrong, that he unfairly took the most valuable goods after her grandparents' deaths and deprived her aunt of her fair share of the estate. Taking her at her word, I believe that she has not only an ethical obligation but also a wonderful opportunity to set things straight and to heal the rift between the two sides of the family.

The right thing for her to do is to discuss the issue with her brother and, if they agree that their father's actions were wrong, to try to find a way to make things right. She is wise to worry about a possible Pandora's box of new disputes, so it might be wise for them to consult a mediator and/or an attorney to help them come to an agreement with their aunt as to a fair recompense.

My reader and her brother are in the driver's seat here, and it is up to them to correct the sins of their father. How far they want to go remains to be determined, but my reader seems to be on the right road, ethically speaking.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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