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Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Does My Ex Owe Something to Our Grown Children?

posted by Joshua on June 11, 2017 in Ethicist, Nonjudgment
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Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Does My Ex Owe Something to Our Grown Children?

After 25 years of marriage and three children, my husband and I divorced. He was a former seminarian and a pro-life Catholic when we married. He insisted on no birth control. When we divorced, he was a lawyer and vice president of a Fortune 500 company. I did not receive any spousal support, but he promised he would always be there for the children. I worked hard and was always able to take care of myself. I felt guilty about the divorce and never asked for more.

Shortly after our divorce, my ex-husband remarried and never again had anything to do with our children. He told the children that they owed him “filial piety,” but apparently he felt he owed them nothing. That was 30 years ago. Over time the children, now adults, have reached out to their father with the help of therapists, but he refuses to have anything to do with them. I have sent letters to him as well but have received no response. He and I have a daughter-in-law and two teenage grandchildren he has never met.

I never remarried. I try to provide emotional and sometimes financial support for our children and grandchildren because I love them. Nothing I do, however, will heal the wounds of being cut off from their father. My question is this: The law says that parents must provide financial support for their children until age 18. But what are the ethical obligations of parents to their children after age 18? Doesn’t a father have an ethical obligation to provide something for the children he has brought into the world? Name Withheld

My response: Your ex-husband believes no. You believe yes. Many would agree with one of you, many with the other, many others have other opinions.

There is no absolute answer. You don’t agree with your ex-husband. Even if you got the New York Times to agree with you, that appeal to authority wouldn’t force him to change his mind. It might motivate him to dig in his heels more.

You may ask yourself the point of judging him anyway. Even if you had access to an absolute measure of right, wrong, good, bad, and evil, and you could prove that you were right and he was wrong, you can’t change the past. How much has people calling you unethical or judging you led you to agree with or follow them?

The New York Times response:

I assume that your ex-husband has a story to tell about why he severed contact with you and your children. But I don’t see how it could explain away a simple truth: In bringing children into the world, a person accepts responsibilities. Your husband wasn’t wrong to say that your children also have responsibilities to a parent. Yet in failing to meet his, he gave them no opportunity to do their part.

“This is my past/Which I shall not discard,” the poet James Fenton writes. “This is the ideal./This is hard.” A man who has abandoned both a vocation and his minor children would seem rather too eager to discard his past. But what of the future? The main things that your ex owed your children were things he can’t give them now: a relationship, guidance and support as they grew. If you’re asking whether he should make up for this now by giving them money, I’d say it is too late. The moral breach here can no longer be healed. It’s true that, in some traditions, people have a duty to leave part of their estate to their children; but they don’t in ours. And it would seem very unlikely that he’ll come around. You’d be right to characterize his paternal withdrawal as an ethical failure, but you’d be wrong to dwell on it.


I was in my mid-20s, was not employed full time and was living with my brothers when a friend of theirs, who was about 35, offered me a job helping a friend of hers move. She lent me a truck (it belonged to someone who was out of town and who had no idea she was lending it out) to use for the move. It turned out to be a much bigger job than I could handle. But I was too young to speak up. So with the other person she hired, we loaded the truck. I was not used to a loaded truck on a steep, narrow driveway. Backing out, I hit the side wall and put a big dent in it, which cost her $500. She thought that I should pay her back. I did not have the means to pay her and was never certain if the responsibility for the damage was mine. (I don’t remember if I was paid for the moving work; if I was, it was maybe $60 to $80.)

I’m in my 50s now, and I’d never touch that kind of situation again, but after all this time I still don’t know the answer. Name Withheld

My response: I would recommend a different perspective than to ask an abstract question of whose responsibility it was and instead ask who would be affected and how by your different options. Then to choose your actions based on the possible outcomes and your sense of empathy.

Though the moment passed, you can still act on it. If you still have a way to reach her, resolving things might ease your conscience.

The New York Times response:

Your brothers’ friend asked an inexperienced person to load and drive a truck without its owner’s consent. That was foolish of her. But you proceeded to do so when you knew that you lacked the requisite experience and skills. That was foolish of you. If you had had the money to help foot the bill, it would have been the decent thing to offer to do so. At least, in these circumstances, I wouldn’t have asked to be paid.


I am a psychiatrist who treats adult mental illness. My patients periodically ask me for a letter certifying that they could benefit from an emotional-support animal, usually to help them cope with symptoms of anxiety. There’s no hard data to show that pets are a viable treatment for mental illness, but it is undeniable that a soothing animal helps patients cope with their anxiety and distress. On the other hand, these letters are usually to allow the person in question to have pets in places (typically rental apartments) in which animals aren’t otherwise allowed. While I want to help my patients, I can’t help questioning the fairness of this practice. Most of us are left to fend for our right to own pets in the traditional manner — find a place to live where pets are permitted! Name Withheld

My response: Thanks for sharing your message with no question!

The New York Times response:

First, a distinction. The Americans With Disabilities Act requires a range of exemptions for a service animal, which means “any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.” The creatures you’re talking about — emotional-support animals — mainly don’t meet this definition. (To begin with, not all are dogs.) But confronted with a no-pets policy, people can invoke the Fair Housing Act, which, subject to certain exceptions, permits a much wider class of animals; here, the basis for the accommodation has to be a disability, defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” If the disability or the need for the animal isn’t obvious, landlords are entitled to limited documentation. (Something similar holds for air travel.) That’s where you come in.

You should feel free to provide such a letter for your patients if they suffer from a disability, like an anxiety disorder, for which a support animal is helpful. If your patient’s condition falls short of the legal definition of disability, or if the animal isn’t really alleviating that disability, you would be abetting an abuse of the system. Typically, the existence of a disability and the relevance of the animal are going to be matters of judgment. But you’re trained to make the relevant judgments. Your only obligation is to do so conscientiously. The law is helpful here: You can explain to those of your patients who don’t have a disability, or whose animal companions don’t help with a disability-related problem, that you can’t certify what isn’t true.

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