My Son’s Inheritance Is at Risk

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When I was in my teens, I was wild and out of control. I got pregnant and decided to raise my son Robert on my own. (His biological father is not and will not ever be a part of his life.) When Robert was a few months old, I meet Steve, a truly wonderful, decent and reliable man. I told Steve everything about my past. We were married when Robert was around two, and one of the first things Steve did after we were married was to legally adopt Robert, who is now six. We have another son, Allan, who is four.

I am a happy stay-at-home mom. Steve is a school teacher, so although we manage financially, we don’t have a lot of money. But Steve’s parents do, and here is the problem. Although Steve’s parents are always nice to Robert and generous with gifts, they obviously feel he is not Steve’s “real” son because in their will, we just found out, they have left significant amounts of money to Allan and their two other grandchildren, Steve’s sister’s children, but they have left nothing to Robert.

As a result, Steve does not want them to leave anything to Allan because he says, “I have two sons. Either they both inherit, or neither of them does.” I think this is crazy because money is money and will help one of our sons. Steve is being stubborn and we’re really at odds over this.

When you described your husband as “truly wonderful, decent and reliable,” you forgot to add that he is also highly principled, at least in this particular situation, meaning his personal rules for guiding his behavior and conduct seem firm. Ethicists, who specialize in ethics and moral behavior, define these behavioral standards as “governing principles.” It appears Steve’s governing principle is that he wants equal treatment for both his sons. It seems your governing principle is to do whatever you can to help your offspring be more secure financially, in this case by accepting a gift that is being offered to one of your two sons.

The ethicist would say you and Steve have competing governing principles, meaning both of them cannot be enacted simultaneously: both your sons cannot be treated equally if one of your sons inherits and the other does not. So, as long as you both hold on to your governing principles as currently professed, they will continue to compete and you have a stalemate. So the challenge is how you might address this impasse.

One option is to do nothing, that is, just let events play out according to the terms set out in Steve’s parents’ will and deal with the situation when you have to, and that could be decades into the future. The advantage to this strategy is that both your governing principles are dormant – no discussion, no clashes. Also, in the meantime, advantageous changes could happen, e.g., Steve’s parents rewrite their will to include both your sons, one or both of you modify your position. The downside of deferring and taking a wait-and-see stance is that things being left unresolved could cause one or both of you frustration and/or resentment, either of which could stress your relationship over this issue even more.

Another option, one that troubles me to have to even mention, is that one of you gives the other an ultimatum: “Accept my position or else…” We don’t have to dwell on how unpleasant and unproductive this could become. But it is an option.

A third option is that you and Steve work together to try and come up with what our ethicist calls a “bridging principle,” that is, a behavioral action that connects both your governing principles and still reflects your core values and morals. For example, depending on Steve’s relationship with his parents and his comfort level in discussing their will with them, he might ask if they would consider taking the amount they planned to leave to Allan and split it between Robert and Allan.

It would be a delicate discussion, but if Steve can successfully express appreciation for their generosity and explain that it is important to him that both his sons are treated equally vis-à-vis their will, they might understand Steve’s request and agree to it. Another potential benefit of having a discussion with them is that it is possible they excluded Robert based on an erroneous assumption, for example, assuming that Robert’s biological father would be playing some role in Robert’s finances. However, when all is said and done, we are talking about Steve’s parents’ money and they can do with it whatever pleases them.

Another possible bridging principle is for your husband to match from his own inheritance, assuming he receives something from his parents, the amount Allan inherits and give it to Robert. This strategy does not change the fact that Steve’s parents singled out one grandson with a favoring circumstance, but it does result in both boys being treated equally in terms of the dollar amounts they receive.

Whatever you and Steve decide to do, you might ask yourselves some questions about your decision, for example:

  • Would you feel comfortable explaining your decision to your children when they’re old enough to understand?
  • Would you want your children to make the same decision if they were faced with your situation?
  • Does your decision honor your core values and morals?
  • Does your decision leave you free of resentment and/or anger towards your spouse?

If you can both answer yes to those four questions, you will probably feel at peace with the agreed-upon decision.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.
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