The Ethicist: Mom Left Me the House. What Do I Owe My Brothers?

August 20, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “Mom Left Me the House. What Do I Owe My Brothers?

I am in my early 60s and have two older brothers. Three years ago, my mother died suddenly, and I inherited her home and all its contents. The day after she died, one of my brothers threatened to sue me for his share of the inheritance. I waited to breathe until probate was over. Six months later, my brothers sent a letter accusing me of theft, coercion, emotional blackmail, mismanaging my mother’s funds and using my ill health as a way to bilk her of money. A lawyer friend told me to ignore their threats and to tell them I would honor her will. My mother’s lawyer, who drew up the will, agreed with that advice.

After her death, I moved into her home and slowly began fixing it; so many things needed work. My mother had used her money to make her home safer and more accessible: new stairs, railings, a new bathroom. She bought herself a Prius and spent money on trips that she took me on. (I am a widow, and I lived two miles away.) I encouraged her, telling her that was her money, and she had worked hard for it! I fully expected her to live another 10 years.

I took good care of our parents, and even though my mother was critical and difficult, I was kind to her and helped her in any way I could. I did a lot of the work on the home, because I’m pretty handy. I took her to all her appointments and church commitments and helped her every day for many years. After the initial threat, I offered to sell the home and give my brothers whatever they wanted, but they would not talk to me. They are both retired and have demanded several hundred thousand dollars.

Should I sell the home, give them each a third and find a cheap apartment to live in? It would pretty much wipe me out. I make $25,000 a year working for a nonprofit. I sent my elder brother a note asking to meet with a mediator, and I got no response. My friends tell me my siblings are not worth my living in poverty. But I want to do the right thing, and I am haunted by this. Name Withheld

My response: Hmm… You sound so innocent and pure, surprised that your mother would die, so selflessly generous with your time for her, and your brothers sound so mean and evil, with no cause, that it’s hard for me to believe parts aren’t missing from the story.

Would they tell the story the same way? If so, why are they acting this way? If not, what is their side of the story?

Without knowing their motivations, it’s hard to resolve the conflict.

One of the most useful approaches I’ve found in leading others is what most people start but don’t finish: to ask, “Why would the other person act this way?” Most people, in the face of others acting in ways you can’t understand, ask the question rhetorically, with the implied answer, “Because they’re crazy.”

Believing they’re crazy undermines your ability to influence them. If they pay taxes, eat, and make it through life, they probably aren’t so crazy that you can’t influence them. Most importantly, when you understand their motivations, you can lead them. Or at least understand them.

I recommend finding out what motivates them and understanding it from their perspective and values, not yours. Then you can lead them. Until you do, you’re dealing with a self-serving caricature of them, which isn’t them and won’t motivate them.

The New York Times response:

Sibling disputes over inheritance go way back — ask Jacob and Esau. And people are seldom at their best when they’ve lost a parent. But this doesn’t excuse your brothers’ behavior. If the facts are roughly as you describe them, your older siblings sound pretty awful. Should you split the estate with them anyway? There would be three possible reasons for doing so: to serve the cause of justice, to head off a legal threat or to establish peace in the family.

On the first point: Your mother wrote the will she wanted to write and was entitled to do so. Parents have a duty to provide for their young children, but the arrow of obligation is reversed when they age. In this case, we’re not talking about dependents. We’re talking about grown men already retired who feel bereft because they haven’t been enriched by their mother’s death. So far as I can see, she owed them nothing, and neither do you.

What about buying them off out of expedience? I can’t give you legal advice, but you’ve conferred with two lawyers who plainly don’t think your siblings stand a chance. You say you’ve waited out the ­probate period during which a will can be contested. Your brothers have bellyached and bullied, but they didn’t institute legal action, and the chances that they plausibly could do so, at this point, appear to be slim. They’re not suing; they’re venting.

Finally, a peace offering extracted by threats and insults isn’t likely to result in genuine comity. If you divvied up the estate the way you’re contemplating, their grievances would become yours. And you would remain — in their telling — the monster who was guilty of emotional blackmail, coercion, theft and mismanagement. Those charges (however spurious) wouldn’t be erased. From their perspective, all that money she spent on herself, with your encouragement, is simply money they’ll never get. Your privation won’t buy their good will.

So I don’t see that you have much choice. It’s sad to lose touch with family members, but it’s sometimes the only option. Keep fixing up the house, and accept that some things in life are beyond repair.


I am studying remotely for a master’s degree from a major university. My primary interaction with my current professor is watching six-month-old prerecorded lecture videos, in addition to weekly live Q. & A. sessions. Recently there was a problem with a lecture video, so the professor uploaded an older version of the same lecture. As I listened to these two years of audio recordings, I noticed stark and progressively worsening vocal changes that surely indicate a health issue but might not be noticed on a day-to-day basis. (Markedly lower pitch, raspiness, constant throat clearing.) What, if any, is my responsibility to my professor as a fellow, caring human being?

I respect that health issues are private, and I would not want to jeopardize his or her employment, but I also deeply regret a previous situation when I noticed signs of a serious health issue in a relative for an entire year (but didn’t say anything) before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. At the very least, I would like to offer a message of support, even anonymously, if need be. Or is it best to keep this to myself? Name Withheld

My response: I’m starting to see all these questions, week after week, about ethics and responsibility as ways to avoid personal responsibility. I’m concluding that letter-writers are asking their responsibility in some abstract sense to avoid the challenge of personal responsibility.

Same with many people, beyond writers to this column.

Getting someone else, especially an authority like a New York Times columnist, to tell them some action is their responsibility lets them act without taking responsibility themselves.

Beyond abdicating their responsibility and stunting their social and emotional growth, and leading them to have to keep asking others to decide for them, asking about abstract philosophical labels distracts from their learning to handle such situations.

I suggest that more useful questions aren’t “What’s ethical,” but “What options do I have,” “What outcomes could I create,” and “What skills could I learn or other resources could I marshal to improve this situation?”

If you had the social and emotional skills to communicate with this person to create outcomes he or she would thank you for, you would use them instead of asking about how to label your actions. Or if you had the emotional skills to handle your emotional situation independent of the outcome, you’d use them too.

I recommend developing those skills.

The New York Times response:

People are less likely to notice gradual changes in themselves than those who see them irregularly are. It’s also tempting to ignore signs of deteriorating health from fear of what a visit to the doctor will reveal. So by telling this professor what you’ve noticed, you might be doing him a favor. And if he already has a diagnosis? The only cost to him will be a little embarrassment at your noticing something he may be trying to keep quiet. Our medical information is private in the sense that those with special access to it ought not to share it without our consent. But medical confidentiality doesn’t mean you can’t draw something you’ve noticed to a person’s attention. Nor would a personal communication jeopardize his employment.

I understand that it may be hard to bring this up in a message to someone with whom your communication has mostly been virtual. So I can see why you might want to do it anonymously. Unless there’s a downside you haven’t mentioned, though, it would be more humane to do it in a way that identifies you. Ideally, in fact, you’d bring it up in conversation, rather than in an email or the like. Getting an anonymous message about a sensitive matter like this could be creepy.

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