Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can I Stay Out of an Estate Dispute?

March 1, 2015 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Ethicist, Nonjudgment


Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post,”Can I Stay Out of an Estate Dispute?

In order to decrease his net worth before beginning divorce proceedings, my brother invested $600,000 in an apartment in my father’s name. Years later, he had our mother co-sign a business loan. When the business failed, my mother was sued for $3 million she didn’t have. After she died of cancer, my father fought the suit for many years. At 93, he settled for a $1.1 million loss. Unable to live his accustomed lifestyle, he approached my brother with the expectation that my brother would supplement his income. When my brother refused, my father sold the apartment and kept the $600,000.

When my father died, he left his estate to be split between my two adult sons, who barely had a relationship with him. My brother believes that he should be given the money from the apartment before anything else is allocated. My father’s lawyer says my father felt cheated and let down by his son. I don’t want to be in the middle. Please advise. NAME WITHHELD

My response: Finally, the New York Times Ethicist column chooses a message that doesn’t ask what’s ethical or what their obligation is. Instead this person asks for advice, an approach I endorse. Asking about ethics and obligations just asks them to judge you, which doesn’t help you figure out what to do. Asking advice does.

This situation is a matter of negotiation. People who view negotiation as a matter of right and wrong or absolute fairness get self-righteous, hurt relationships, and create misery. At least that’s what I see.

In negotiation, you don’t get what you believe you deserve just because you think you deserve it. After all, if the other people think everyone deserves a different distribution, not everyone can get what they think they deserve. You get what you negotiate. In other words, in a given situation, your results depend on your skill and training.

Not just the outcome and distribution result from your skill and training. If you view negotiation as part of creating relationships, then your relationships, how you feel about them, how the other people feel, how much you can grow the pie, and more than just how you divide the pie all depend on your skills and training. The more skills you have and the more you practice the more you’ll like your results, meaning you’ll probably like the people you interact with more, create more rewarding relationships, make more money, and overall enjoy life more.

To the writer: your situation is so convoluted, I don’t see specific advice to this situation helping. Every sentence except the last reads drama, relationship-undermining behavior, shady business, and more. That’s quite a feat! Twisted enough to merit ironic congratulations. I could spend columns on just the first sentence. Investing doesn’t lower your net worth. It changes one asset to another. I doubt there are contracts to any of these dealings. That means everyone has different opinions and expectations for everything.

The best advice I can give is to learn about negotiation and practice it. I recommend staring by reading Getting To Yes. I would also buy copies for all your relatives since they need it as much as you.

Then, if you don’t want to be in the middle, don’t be in the middle. They are adults, as are you. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.

Amy Bloom: I see this not as a legal question, but more as a family-therapy or family-­dynamics question. Nevertheless, I’m going to turn this one over to you, Kenji.

Kenji Yoshino: Well, it seems as if a lot of people are behaving badly here. I sort of trip over the word “invested” — “my brother invested $600,000 in an apartment.” This is not really framed as a loan. It was framed as an investment, and investments can go bust. I feel that what is going on here is that the brother made an investment that didn’t pan out, and then the father and the brother had a falling out. I don’t see that the letter writer should do anything other than leave it to the father’s lawyer. Certainly I don’t see any reason the letter writer should feel any obligation to play a mediating role.

Jack Shafer: I’ve read this question 12 times, and it makes my brain hurt every time. It is misunderstanding upon presumption, family dynamics thrown into a blender. The ethics trail has gone so cold here that I can’t bring myself to do anything but vote my proxy with Kenji, who seems wise in all things legal.

Yoshino: I like that qualifier. It’s what we call an expressio unius clause. So am I unwise in all other things?

Shafer: Don’t get Latin with me.

Bloom: I think Kenji is wise in all things legal. I also don’t think this is actually a legal question, because there is a will. “When my father died, he left his estate to be split between my two adult sons” — there’s the will. It seems to me that what the letter writer is saying is that the brother is making noises either about contesting the will or about what he feels is a familial obligation to give him money. The letter writer says, “I don’t want to be in the middle.” I think it’s always interesting when somebody says, “I don’t want to be in the middle,” and in fact they are not in the middle. You are not ethically obliged to do a single thing, as far as I can tell. I’m sure it’s an interesting story as to why the letter writer is a little reluctant to be as off the hook as he or she is, but as Shafer would say, that’s their problem.

Shafer: Money does strange things to families. When you borrow money, when you lend money, when you invest money with a family member, it draws in so much of the personal. And you can’t just say to a family member who lent you money or borrowed money from you, “Hey, it’s just business.” This is why a lot of family businesses break up.

Is it ethically wrong for a hometown crowd to play a more direct role in trying to influence the outcome of a sporting event? By that, I mean raising the noise level to such an extent that it is very difficult for the opposing quarterback to call plays or positioning fans behind the baskets to wave streamers and try to distract an opposing player taking free throws. BILL, BRONXVILLE, N.Y.

My response: Oh brother! Back to the pointless ethics questions. It seems the Times changed writers and formats for the column, replacing one guy giving his opinion with three people having a conversation. I hoped from the last question they’d quit with the judgment, but alas, no.

As usual, there is no absolute measure of ethics. If there was, you would have used it, gotten your answer, and not had to ask anyone else. All you’re getting is opinion.

The sports teams you’re asking about play for leagues that build the stadiums and wrote the rule books. The rules describe how to handle fan interference. People have played sports in arenas for thousands of years in countless cultures around the world. Nothing is happening today that hasn’t substantially happened before so the rules handle most things.

If you want to know what the specific rules are, look up the rule book. People will always interpret rules differently, so you can’t get around that. As for ethics, obviously the fans doing it consider it ethical. Some people don’t.

Opinions. Everyone has one.

Shafer: There are sporting manners. At a tennis match you’re not supposed to cheer during the playing of a point, and at a figure-skating competition you’re not supposed to chant. But at football or basketball events, it’s clearly ethical to scream as much as you want and try to hinder the visiting team.

Yoshino: Jack, let me press you on that. On the one hand, I would say it’s fine to cheer. On the other, I think that we would agree that if I shined a flashlight or a really bright strobe into the face of somebody who is trying to make a free throw, that would be unethical. Even if both sides did it, that form of interference with the game would be just a race to the bottom.

Shafer: If we toss the flashlight away and don’t light off any firecrackers, I think you would agree with me that it is ethical to cheer as loudly as you want.

Bloom: But there’s a question about the content of what is said. Do we say, “Oh, hands off, that’s not something we can touch, because ethically it’s all shouting and hollering”? But if there are racist chants, as is often the case at European soccer games, do we say that it’s not ethical as well as that it’s not good for the sport?

Shafer: If management has enunciated its principles clearly and has declared no racist chants, it should be allowed, I think, to eject the people who are making racist chants.

Yoshino: I guess I would just take this a step back and say the reason that there’s a home-court advantage is that the fans are part of the team. And so if that’s the case, then I think that the norms of sportsmanship that apply to the team also apply to the fans. We have to dig into what being a good sport means, and I think that fundamentally it means you root for your team but you also root for the ideal that the better team wins on the merits. If that’s the case, there are certain things that players can’t do and there are certain things that fans can’t do. So rather than this tit-for-tat thing — whatever we do is going to be done to us, so it will all work out in the end — I think that one guiding principle has to be this notion of sportsmanship.

My gym has a bin of magazines for public consumption. People commonly bring in their own magazines and leave them for others to read. One magazine that regularly appears in the bin is a National Rifle Association publication with headlines and articles that I find offensive. When I see that magazine, I take it home and throw it out. Actually I recycle it. If the magazines were supplied by the gym itself, that might be different. But in this case, I think that the N.R.A. supporter has a right to spread his or her views and that similarly I have a right to express my views by removing the magazine. What’s your opinion? NAME WITHHELD, MINNESOTA

My response: We’re back to asking opinions! I like this trend away from asking for judgment.

First I’ll give some context, then my opinion.

Context: When I was younger I felt my beliefs were right, in an absolute sense. I didn’t think it consciously, but that meant I believed people with other beliefs were wrong. At the time I described that perspective as idealist, as if others with different ideals didn’t have them.

I have a finite amount I can influence the world. Since I can’t do everything, I have to choose what to do in part based on what I think I can do relative to how much I want it. I also have to consider what I don’t do when I’m busy working on what I can do. In other words, I pick my battles. I can’t solve all the world’s problems, so I do what I think will help me do what I think most important.

My opinion: You have to decide what’s most important for you. What are you achieving—not just what you want to achieve, but what are the results of your actions? I don’t see you changing anyone’s opinion. I see passive aggressive behavior more likely to reinforce the opinions of the person leaving the magazine.

Meanwhile, what are you not doing while spending time and attention on this issue where you might affect more?

There is an amazing skill to look at something you could involve yourself with but you realize other things are more worth your time to walk away and, instead of dwelling in what you aren’t doing, devoting yourself to what you can do, undistracted by what you can’t do.

If this is a battle you think is worth your time and attention, go for it. If you want to know about rights, talk to a lawyer. Of course, I recommend creating relationships with people involved, not to try to win but to understand. You hardly know anything about the person leaving the magazines nor have you talked to the gym, it seems. Why not talk to them?

I would choose another battle myself. I can make a bigger difference in other areas, but you have your life and I have mine.

Yoshino: Oh, boy.

Bloom: Oh, dear. I’m going to tackle this one first, because I have to say I don’t think the right to express your views by removing the reading material is a path that any ethicist would encourage. The fact that you don’t like it does not mean it’s O.K. to burn it, or ban it, or take it off the shelf or even out of the grungy little bin at your gym. You may want to bring in other magazines. You may even want to bring in a magazine called Ten Thousand Maimed and Murdered Children in Gun Accidents. But you don’t have the right to throw the magazine out.

Yoshino: Yeah, I’m totally with you on that. The other thing I want to say is that I find this distinction really strange: that if the gym itself was supplying the magazine, that might be different. In other words, “I wouldn’t throw away the magazine, but given that this is somebody else supplying the magazine, I have a right to do it.” This one seems like the most fascinating one, but also kind of a no-brainer.

Bloom: Yeah, it’s also somebody mistaking self-righteousness for the greater good. What’s your thought, Shafer?

Shafer: I really hate it when we all agree.

Bloom: I know.

Shafer: Because there’s nothing I like better than a good fight and a cheap shot. What we have here is essentially a community lending library of magazines. The person who thinks that he or she has some sort of right — in that it’s an expression of speech to destroy a magazine or even in this case recycle it — is slightly nuts. I’m not keen on the works of Karl Marx, but that doesn’t give me a right to unshelve all of his books at the public library and toss them in a Dumpster. So this letter writer has done the unusual. He or she has brought us all together in this kumbaya moment. I agree with you guys completely.

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