Have an ethical quandary? Beliefnet's wise and insightful ethicist will sort it out for you. Just ask.

Dear Joseph,
My brother and his wife are drawing up their wills, and they've told me that in the event that they both die, they want to appoint my husband and me to be their children's legal guardians and to raise them.

How can I say no to my brother? He and his wife have four children under the age of 9, and I'm his only sibling; his wife's siblings would be inappropriate. My husband, however, is very uncomfortable about assuming such a responsibility.

For one thing, he points out, the financial implications are immense. In response to this objection, I checked with a financial-services institution, and they told me I could project expenses of about $150,000 per child. My husband regards this figure, which is admittedly a lot of money, as naively low. As he reminds me, if we add four children to our household, we'll need a considerably larger house. And given that we send our two children to private school (my brother sends his children to public), we'd be uncomfortable not doing the same for my brother's kids. My husband is also far from certain that he wants to raise these children. What should I say to my brother?
--Highly Uncomfortable

Dear Highly Uncomfortable,
I really feel for your situation. There are times in life when people request things that are nearly impossible to say no to, yet our yes might not be all that wholehearted. Indeed, I suspect that many people who agree to be legal guardians for someone else's children do so in large part because they're sure that the tragic scenario that would require them to make good on that agreement--the death of both parents--will not come to pass.

On the other hand, if such a horrific event happens, I think many people might find that they'd be willing to step in and do the right, self-sacrificial thing. So one question I'd ask you to pose to your husband is this: Should I tell my brother that if he and his wife both die, you expressed the preference that they send the children to an orphanage and promised that you'd visit occasionally? Or should I tell him that you're willing to assume responsibility for two of the children, the ones you like best, and that he should try and find different homes for the other two?

When phrased that way, it becomes clear that rejecting your brother's request would cause at worst a rupture and at best a cooling in family relationships. Of course, you and your husband could say no to your brother in a less provocative manner--"We're just uncomfortable assuming such a responsibility"--but the effect would be pretty much the same. Your brother will reason to himself: So what do they expect to happen to my children if my wife and I die? After all, if my own sister's husband isn't willing to take them in, who, other than an institution, will be willing?

Having said this, let me add that I believe your husband's financial concerns are not unreasonable. You would need a new, much larger house, and there is the issue of school tuition while the children are young and of college tuition (which, if the children go to private colleges, could amount to well over $100,000 for each child) in later years.

So I'd suggest the following: On the presumption that your brother and his wife are in good health and can obtain term insurance at reasonable rates, I don't think it would be unfair of you to ask that they take out at least $2 million in life insurance.

From what I understand, because the deaths of both parents at this stage in their lives is so unlikely, the cost of this insurance wouldn't be prohibitive. A friend who checked on this for me says that $1 million of life insurance would probably cost about $1,000 a year. I think this is a reasonable request to make of your brother, since the money will be spent on raising his children. And without this money, both his children and yours will suffer.

There is of course another issue involved: Does your husband truly not want to raise these children? If he insists that he doesn't, then you really are in a bind, because there's no way you can communicate such a response to your brother without causing genuine ill will. Ask your husband to think about the following: In the event of such a tragedy, would he really want to see these four children institutionalized? If he wouldn't, he must be willing to accept the remote possibility of becoming your nephews and nieces' legal guardians. At least you can be sure then of one thing: Your husband will be fervently praying for your brother and sister-in-law's good health.

Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus