Sunday, March 20, 2022

How obligated is daughter-in-law after her father-in-law’s death?

 Not long ago, a reader’s father-in-law died. The reader, whom we’re calling Lakshmi, and her late husband lived close to the father-in-law and cared for him for many years before he died. Lakshmi’s husband had a sister we’re calling Paula, who lived far away. While Paula was regularly consulted about Lakshmi’s father-in-law’s care and finances, Paula had deferred to her brother on most decisions.


After her father-in-law’s death, Lakshmi remembered her father-in-law had a joint checking account with her husband that still had just over $300 in it when he died. Lakshmi’s name was put on the checking account after her husband had died, so she had access to the funds.


“I asked my sister-in-law what I should do with the money and she told me to keep it to use in case there were any unexpected costs like shipping her some of her father’s belongings,” wrote Lakshmi. Lakshmi did use some of the money to send Paula some photo albums and other mementos.


Lakshmi also took care of most of the funeral arrangements for her father-in-law and organized the memorial service for him since she was local. Paula was not and would have to fly in for the service.


But Lakshmi discovered that several hundred more dollars showed up in her late father-in-law’s account recently, which was technically now her account since she was the only living survivor of the joint account holders. Apparently, a refund of one kind or another was directly deposited.


“It’s not a lot of money,” Lakshmi wrote. “But it is more than what the amount was when I first told Paula about the account.”


Lakshmi wants to know if she should bother telling Paula about these new funds or if she should just assume she should follow Paula’s directive to keep the money and use it for incidentals related to her father-in-law’s death.


Losing a parent as Paula had has to have been tough. Losing both a husband and a father-in-law as Lakshmi had while having to arrange for memorial services and sort out finances must have been tough and consuming. I’m hopeful Paula knowing that Lakshmi was nearby during her father’s final days was a comfort to her.


I am not an estate lawyer and do not know the specifics of Lakshmi’s father-in-law’s will or if he even had one. But even if Lakshmi suspects she knows what Paula’s response would be, the right thing is for Lakshmi to let Paula know about the money and ask her what she’d like to do with it.


Letting Paula know isn’t the right thing to do simply to avoid a potential confrontation if she were to find out later and wonder why she hadn’t been told. It’s the right thing to do because it was Paula’s father, and Lakshmi and her late husband before her had always involved Paula in such decisions. Honoring that arrangement also honors the memories of the loved ones they lost. May their memories continue to be a blessing.


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 to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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