Updated:

What Does Fair Mean in a Family?

Is it OK to leave your children unequal shares of your assets?  Here’s how the issue was framed in the Ethicist column on the New York Times Magazine:

This is the situation: An elderly parent has a fair amount of money and two children. One is wealthy with luxury properties, a spouse and no children. This child lives far away and visits only sporadically. The other lives near the parent, earns a modest salary, has children and several grandchildren and regularly visits and helps the elderly parent. This parent thinks it’s only fair to leave her children an equal share of her assets. Is this, in fact, ethical?

The ethicist analyzes it as I would, really. He notes that it may not, in fact, be fair to treat people who aren’t equal in life equally in an estate plan. But he goes on to say that the question of what makes people ‘equal‘ isn’t so easy to determine, especially in families. Clearly, he notes, these two children are not equal in terms of their own material wealth, nor in the care they’ve shown their parents over the years.

It might make economic sense to give more to the child who has less, because it will certainly make a larger difference to the poorer child to inherit assets when that parent dies. And it might make a certain kind of practical sense to give more to the child who has done more caretaking to that parent, though, as the ethicist rightly points out, “one reason money is a troublesome idiom for expressing gratitude here is that it awkwardly suggests a mercenary motive for those years of filial piety.”

Treating both children equally despite their differences makes them equal in this important way: that they are both the children of the same parent and that treating them equally avoids the problem of assessing their needs comparatively. In the end, the ethicist decides that it would be ethical either way.

But no one has ever asked me if it is ethical to leave their assets in different shares, they ask me if it is fair to do so. While I realize that the distinction between the two is slight, to me, ethical has to do with abstract moral principals, while fair gets to the nitty gritty of everyday parenting. One day, when my son was 3 or so, he wailed, “that’s not FAIR!” when his 8 year old sister gave him exactly 1/2 of a chocolate chip cookie. “Sam,” I said, “you got exactly as much of the cooke as Kate did, that’s the very definition of fair.” “But,” he cried, ‘it’s not what I wanted!” And, that to me, is what parents are really asking me –will my children think this is OK? Will they get what they wanted?

Here’s what I tell them.  I tell them that “fair” is different in each family, and they have to be the judge of what’s fair for them. Fair might be giving more to one child with greater need or to recognize a child’s caretaking efforts over the years. But fair also might mean equal shares for everyone in the interest of maintaining family harmony after you’ve died.

“Certainly,” I also say, “whatever decision you make, it will be better respected if it isn’t a surprise.”

In the end, I agree with the ethicist’s conclusion:  “If the estate were to be divided in a way that favored one child over the other, the parent should make it clear why doing so was consistent with each having an equal claim to the parent’s love.”