Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ethicist on Family Handouts

In the Sunday NY Times Magazine, this week's "The Ethicist" column had a question that struck me:

My beloved sister, a human rights worker in Central America, has long received financial help from our parents. I earn enough to support a comfortable lifestyle. May I ask them to make a reckoning of their aid to my sister, subtracting it from any bequest they eventually make her, so that overall, she and I receive equal amounts? — Name Withheld, Albuquerque


The ethicist's answer:

You may ask, but your parents need not comply. This is their money, not funds they hold in trust for their heirs....


However, he goes on to note that

No matter how genuinely you love your sister and esteem her work, if your parents underwrite her over the years, it’s hard not to ask why you should seem to subsidize her life choices. You might also consider that if your parents develop protracted illnesses and need financial help, it will fall to you, not your sister, to assist them.


That rang a bell with me! As I noted on a recent trip home to see my family, my sister has been getting a bit of help, not to mention all the money spent on her wedding. My mother has often joked that because of that, I'll get their house, but I'm not counting on it! I don't mind if my sister's family gets a few handouts-- I look at it as something that gives my niece and nephew a good childhood. But sometimes, when I find myself postponing a purchase because I don't feel I should spend the money, I wish my sister and her husband would share that attitude a bit more. If my parents ever need financial help, I'll definitely be the one left holding the bag! Oh well. I guess that's what family is all about...

25 comments:

Kate said...

as a parent i would consider subsidizing my daughter, a human rights worker, to be a charitable act, not just a handout.

Anonymous said...

Since when have families been fair? As an older sibling, I had a lot of advantages growing up, but my parents were in a better financial situation when my sister went to college. She didn't take any loans. My sister is also a little more frivolous than I am, but that's her personality not mine. Our parents help us out in different ways, and if the way they helped me was to raise me to be more independent than my sister, I think I got the better deal in the long run.

T'Pol said...

I think a family should treat all their children fairly. When my sister was getting married, my mom calculated all that she had spent on her and gave me the equivalent amount of money and said: "I have two kids and the fact that you are not getting married is not something I should penalize you for" with a smile. She then added: "Well if you decide to marry later on, you're own". Mom is quite extraordinary and I appreciate that and treat her with respect and kindness.

mapgirl said...

I think commenter Kate misses the point.

This is about how children feel about perceived equitable sharing of their parents as a resource, not what parents actually think or do. When you're 6, it's about the piece of chocolate cake you get for dessert. At 30, it's about your share of an inheritance or what parents are giving to your sibling without the others knowing.

They way I look at it, my sibling and I lived together in CA for many years. While it was just the two of us, I paid for our groceries and BART tickets, while my sibling studied at Berkeley. My folks gave my sibling an allowance each month for about 3 years during that time.

Later, I asked for a down payment gift for my condo, and it was less than the total of the allowance. (As far as I know.) But I don't resent buying those groceries and BART tickets at all. Perhaps because those studies were an investment in an extremely lucrative career in programming. (Maybe it's because my sibling doesn't have an ongoing need for funds like the submitter in the column that I don't really mind?)

I am the one who takes care of my parents when stuff goes wrong, my sibling forks over money since time is not available. But always when planning my parents' estate/assets, I have asserted a 50/50 split, calling dibs on only a few items of artwork which mean a lot to me, knowing there is other stuff my sibling will want.

So perhaps it's really a resentment about relationships and burdens? Is the letter writer proud of the work being done by their sister? I'm extremely proud of my sibling's work and I admire them a lot. The allowance my folks gave my sibling went to the rent we paid when living together, so it was still a subsidy to me anyway. (With all the attendant headaches of living with a crappy roommate like me. LOL)

As much as the writer says their sister is 'beloved', perhaps they need to reconcile their true feelings about their sister's financial relationship with the family. If my sibling wanted to run off and do something other than programming after all those years of study and asked me to help them out, I wouldn't mind at all as long as it was within my means to help. I'm at peace with my financial relationship with my family, but it sounds like the letter writer is not. I mean honestly, why are they keeping count? Have they not transcended an accounting of rights, wrongs and dollars spent? (Not to get all biblical here, but isn't that the gist of I Cor 13, 'love is patient, love is blind?')

Anonymous said...

Gawker has an interesting take on this.
http://gawker.com/news/the-unethicist/you-make-keanu-reeves-look-smarter-than-that-harvard-sweatshirt-he-wore-in-chain-reaction-321396.php

The gist of it seems to be: just worry about yourself and stop vulturing over the cash layout you might someday get when your parents kick the can, you selfish asshole.

I always enjoy the unethicist.
:)

frugal zeitgeist said...

I hope my parents spend it all. It's their money, not mine or my sister's, and our parents don't owe us anthing. They earned and saved their money, and they can do whatever the hell they want with it.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of Ferris Bueller. The thing is, both siblings could rely on their parents if they wanted, but only one chooses to. It isn't really fair, and it certainly doesn't feel very good (I'm the independent one in my family as well), but it is a choice we make.

I am a bit more selfish though; I keep tabs and would expect the reliant sibling(s) to give more when it's needed. If I've always been a few steps back, I will remain that way. It feels a bit cruel but ultimately is fair, and fairness is more important to me than feelings such as jealousy or obligation.

Simone S. said...

I absolutely agree with Kate. Were I a parent (or sibling) I would be proud that my daughter (or sister) was doing such good for the world and consider it my personal act of charity to help her out (or not whine about fairness).

I know for sure that my sister gets quite a bit of help from my parents. But then again she makes half as much as me but lives in a city that's twice as expensive. I personally don't need the hassle of going to my parents and feel rather proud of myself for being independent. It is good to know that should I need help some day, I have a bit of leverage.

Since when have siblings been treated fair? Heaven knows that I, as the older sis, did things growing up that my parents learned the hard way from, and my sister beared the brunt of not being able to do them in the first place...lol!

Nistuj said...

To all the enlightened respondents, how about you give your share to me since that's fair, eh.

guinness416 said...

On a vacation recently I met some retirees (several different couples, all travelling together) who were merrily "spending our kids' inheritance" travelling all over the world and engaging in some of their more pricy hobbies. I thought their attitude was fun and great. Personally I'd rather take my own eyeballs out of my head with a spoon than broach the topic of any bequest from my folks or grandparents. I think the ethicist's original answer is dead on.

My Dollar Plan said...

Fair and equal are not the same.

Fecundity said...

Hey Guinness416, I'd wager my parents were one of those sets of retirees you met. They're about to embark on their fourth cruise this year. Life's rough. ;)

I'm an only child, and though I'll appreciate anything leftover that my parents leave me when they die, I'd much rather they spend it on themselves. They both came from poor families and they earned every cent they're enjoying now. They deserve it. I was just born into it.

That being said, I can sympathize somewhat with Name Withheld, Albuquerque. My brother-in-law is significantly older than my husband, and apart from about 6 months some 15 years ago, he's always lived with his parents. He doesn't contribute anything, nor does he work at anything, let alone as something as noble as a human rights worker. Unless you count ubiquitous griping about "The Man".

The filial imbalance itself isn't the problem.

The upsetting thing for us is that unlike my parents, his are not going to be comfortable when they retire. They have very little in savings and they're currently renting their house, so they have no equity built up either. They're going to be strapped and living entirely on the federal pension plan (CPP) and Old Age Security, and I doubt it's going to be pretty.

Which means we'll have to help them. We've agreed that the brother is going to be on his own, since we're not going to pay for his poor life choices. But we're still going to be indirectly paying for all those years he sponged off his parents due to our inability to watch their impending poverty, something he cares nothing about, if he's even bothered to think about it.

Life really is rough, sometimes.

Anonymous said...

It really makes me mad when people assume that their parents owe them a share of their money. I always secretly hope those parents donate everything to charity

PiggyBankBlues said...

my mom worked her ass off and raised two kids on her own with very little money. she deserves to blow her retirement money on her own damn self.

that said, i go broke every time i go home for a visit b/c i'm bailing out my sister. my mom frequently does as well. ethicist is dead on in response.

story for thought..... said...

in one sentence: as long as the children are not inheriting the parents' debt, anything they get, whether it be $1 or 1M, should be treated as a bonus and not a source for hard feelings.

and here's my family story: when my grandfather died, he left a substantial amount of property to be divided amongst his 10 heirs + 1 widow (PS: just with my dad's share my brother and I each got to go to private high school and college for about 9 years). one would imagine that everyone lives happily ever after but NOOOOO. since my grandfather didn't leave an unequivocal will, my uncles and aunts ended up fighting over the property for over 20 years. since the children vary quite a bit in age, the younger ones were disgruntled that the older ones got all the rent pmts from the properties early on. also because of tax arbitrage reasons, some of the properties were registered under the older siblings' names and of course they didn't want to spit it back out. everyone suspects that his/her sibling is getting the better end of things. everytime they see each other a screaming battle erupts. several times when they tried to have civil meetings they still ended up with bottles flying in the air. for a while since my dad doesn't want to talk to the "cheaters," i had to help him screen phone calls just so he can avoid talking to his own siblings (that's before cell phones or caller ID of course). once we ran into my aunt in the street and she blatantly refused to acknowledge not only my dad but even me, who she used to pamper as a kid and who really doesn't have a say in the business fair yet. of course people all want more money but the way my uncles and aunts turned each other into one another's worst enemy was just horrid........

PS: the story takes place in an asian country but we came to the US for school.

mapgirl said...

I should qualify my comment something. I don't think there will be anything to 'inherit' from my parents except their personal effects. The 50/50 split to which I refer in my comment is actually about shareholding in the corporation my parents have for their businesses. I serve as a corporate officer to help them out and when shares were issued, my parents asked if I wanted some to make inheritance smoother later, e.g. no probate or reduced taxation for my shares, however, I said no b/c my sibling needed their share, but ownership would also complicate their taxes in an undesirable way.

The question wasn't if there was an inheritance, but about perceptions of equity between siblings. Because I want to make sure there is fairness with my sibling and have direct experience with this conversation in my family, I thought I would share my story. I didn't leave a comment to be called greedy by other people because I help my folks plan their estate.

meh.

Fecundity said...

My apologies, Mapgirl. I hope my comment wasn't one of the ones that offended you. I didn't mean it as a comment on your expectations (or lack thereof) or your situation, simply on my own.

Anonymous said...

This is a subject near and dear for me on several levels:

1) I don't expect to inherit anything from my own family, and whatever I might inherit, I know my Mom would want me to use for the benefit of my siblings, who are both somewhat unsuccessful on the economic front. On this, I'd have to agree with Mom. I don't want anything (financially speaking) from her and would rather it benefit others. Admittedly, this may be because there won't be much to inherit. If she suddenly won the lotto, I'd probably change my tune.

2) On my wife's side, the inheritance could be quite significant - they're typical retired Millionaire Next Door types. At least $1mm in assets, live below their means, not spending down the piggy bank. But, the inheritance will depend on many variables such as in-laws lifespan, health, etc. If they live to 100, they might just end up spending their money. The whole in-law family (including wife) keeps tabs. I can tell that her siblings are postering to maximize their inheritance. In fact, since we are the wealthiest members of her family, I would bet good money that we will be cut out of their will someday (because we don't need it and we don't have kids). Wife finds this prospect very hurtful - not because of the money, but because of the fairness and emotional implications (her relationship with parents not exactly great).

3) In our own estate planning, we have a substantial sum to distribute (low 8-figures when you include insurance, stk options that would vest, etc.). We are right now in the process of revising our wills. We're still relatively young (mid-40's), so not planning on kicking off anytime soon, but we don't want a free-for-all to occur should we meet an untimely accidental demise. Most of our estate will go to charity. Friends and family will get what I would call "tokens of affection", as a way of saying to say "nice knowing you". My Mom will have trust set up to take care of her needs (whatever is leftover will go to charity). And our closest relative and his kids will get a very material sum. Chances are, our families will hardly consider our estate plan to be "fair". But, basically, I've given up on trying to be fair. Where money is concerned, seldom is life fair.

Nicole said...

When you're feeling bad about handouts to your sibling, read (or re-read) the Millionaire Next Door. These types of subsidies are anything but a blessing. Most of the time they perpetuate financial dependence. Perhaps the reason your sis and her husband don't have your frugal attitude is because (consciously or unconciously) they see your parents as a perpetual financial resource. You, on the other hand, have more financial independence, which is a greater gift than a handout.

Anonymous said...

Nicole, good point about financial independence. Wife and I are people who have always placed a huge premium on independence (part of reason her relationship with her parents is strained at times). Her parents are the types that use money to keep their children near. Wife is the type who can't be bought (part of the reason I think we won't inherit much if anything, subconciously punishing her for being too independent). As for me, I've always been independent because I learned early on that life is inherently unfair and that I was the only person who could look out for myself.

In both my family and wife's family, our siblings have had a lot of trouble letting go of the apron strings and parents have encouraged the dependence. In my in-law's case, wife's 40-something siblings make +$100K (without breaking too much of a sweat) and still look to mommy and daddy to bail them out (go figure). And they are clearly (and foolishly) looking at the inheritance as theirs already.

I attribute a large part of our relatively greater fin'l health to our need for independence and self-determination. This, of course, creates resentment sometimes from family - as if we somehow got invisible unfair help from somewhere. Ahhhh, family dynamics will drive you crazy if you let it.

- Anon@2:54pm

Anonymous said...

I'm the early poster who said "who says families are fair" and after reading these posts, I LOVE my parents, even if they give my sister a few hundred dollars every month. (I think my sister is fantastic too, even if she is a slacker--a stylish and witty slacker). Bribery to keep your kids from being independent? In-fighting over rents? Geez, at this point I think growing up without any major parent resentment is inheritence enough!!

mapgirl said...

Fecundity, thanks. I appreciate that. I think people read into stuff on the internet a lot of times colored by their own perceptions. It's very interesting. Like I said, this article about ethics wasn't about what a parent should or shouldn't do. It's their money and they should do whatever they want with it. But I thought the article was about the relationship of the siblings and what they perceived to be equitable.

Money and relationships are never easy, which is kind of why my sibling and I pooh pooh inheritance talk saying there won't be any left. More than anything we try to mind our own business and grow our own net worth so our parents don't stress out about it. Maybe that's the advice we should all give the letter writer instead?

Nistuj said...

Here I thought the point was about how it's not unusual for the more responsible sibling(s) indirectly enabling the less responsible ones by helping fund the parents retirement later in life after the less responsible sibling(s) sponged away all the parent's savings. Wow, what a rambling sentence.

Anonymous said...

@Nistuj - Despite your rambling sentence structure, I think you've hit on the more relevant issue. Where there are less responsible siblings, the more fiscally successful sibling is often in a position of indirectly funding the dependent sibling who draws down their parents financial resources.

I know that I have that issue, and have numerous friends in the same position. Unfortunately, since my mom is horrible with money, and my two siblings are not at all above mooching, it makes it difficult to be generous towards my mom in certain ways, because I know where the money will ultimately end up.

If I buy my mom a new car (something I've considered since she has so many problems with the old one), I know that actually, its the sibling who currently lives with her that would get the most utility from it while she pays for the gas, upkeep, etc. If I sent her money for some reason, it would be redirected either to a sibling, a friend, or her church. Don't get me started on the church thing. I get that churches need tithing to support expenses, but when does it become irresponsible for them to take money off of elderly, retired, widows, on a fixed pension with no savings.

Ultimately, when her resources are depleted by her generousity, it will be me who will have to pay the price.

I think this is a very common problem.

hazygrey said...

I felt guilty reading this because my parents have spent much more money on me (grad school, and more expensive college) than they did for my sister, and yet, she's the one who's doing financially better, so she gets them nice gifts etc...

At least I'm not on my feet and paying my parents back for the money they lent me for my tuition. I recently ran into my cousin. He's in his 40s, has received a lot of support in the past from his parents for grad school etc... but ended up with a low paying government job and many kids, so is still getting help from his parents. I wonder how his sister, who's comfortably off, feels about that.