Sunday, March 31, 2024

Baby, you can drive my car if the timing works out

Is a conditional offer binding?

A regular reader we’re calling Lennon and his spouse we’re calling Paula had a 19-year-old car with 109,000 miles on it. After the car began to experience issues, they decided it was time to consider a new vehicle.

When their son learned they might be shopping around, he asked if he could buy Lennon’s car for his teenage daughter who had recently wrecked her car. “We quickly agreed,” wrote Lennon. “In fact, we agreed to just give it to her.”

But Lennon’s granddaughter’s need for a car became more immediate after she got a new job.

Lennon and Paula had started looking, but it wasn’t going as quickly as they had hoped. That Lennon needed hand controls to drive slowed the search process down even more.

“We felt a lot of pressure to buy a car before we were ready to make a decision,” wrote Lennon. Paula felt they had made a commitment to their son, but Lennon felt that circumstances had changed when their granddaughter needed a car sooner than theirs would be available. Since their son had texted Paula that he was prepared to buy a car for his daughter if his parents weren’t ready to turn theirs over to him yet, Lennon thought it was “painfully OK” to renege on the initial offer. “My wife thought differently.”

After some serious thrashing through, Lennon and Paula agreed to “soften the blow” by offering their son a considerable sum of money toward another car.

Now that their granddaughter has a safe vehicle to use, Lennon believes they are “over the hump.” But he wrote that “my wife doesn’t think I/we honored our word or did the right thing, because she saw our verbal agreement to give our son a car as a commitment.”

Lennon asked my opinion, observing that even if he’s “vindicated” by my opinion, “that doesn’t mean I’m right in hers, of course (lovable as she is).” He also wrote that this has been probably the worst controversy in their 51-year marriage.

Paula is right that they made a verbal commitment to give their granddaughter their car once they bought a new one. Lennon pointed out, however, that they hadn’t agreed to hand over the car before they were able to purchase a new one. Once it became clear that their granddaughter needed a car before Lennon and Paula had been able to purchase a new one, they faced a conundrum. Should they have handed over their car and be left figuring out how to get around without a vehicle? Not an ideal solution.

Ideally, Lennon and Paula would have honored their commitment, but they did the right thing by being forthright with their son when circumstances changed. If their granddaughter could have waited, that might have been the best outcome. Once it became clear she couldn’t, Lennon and Paula’s offer to help fund the purchase of a car for her was generous and honorable.

Neither Lennon nor Paula were wrong in their assessment of the situation. Each of them was trying to do something kind for their granddaughter. Ultimately, they simply came down differently on a solution to this particular challenge. Even if they never resolve their differences on this one, if this is the worst controversy in 51 years of marriage, their track record seems on solid ground.

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, emeritus, 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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