My fiancé's mother died recently and divided her estate evenly between her two children. My fiancé's sister has three children, and she now insists that her family should receive significantly more than half--perhaps three-quarters--so her kids can share in the estate. She acknowledges that while the law may be on my fiancé's side, his action in keeping half of the estate is immoral. Her increasingly strident harangues on the subject have thrown him into a depression. She's made it clear that if he doesn't give in on this issue, any further relationship between them will be pointless since "that will show that all you care about is money." Should my fiancé compromise and give his sister and her children part of his share of the estate?
Normally, I am a big advocate of compromise, especially when it comes to family relations. And maybe if it was possible to buy real peace with his sister with a token settlement, I would suggest doing so. But in all honesty, I find her reasoning so self-serving as to be immoral. For one thing, it was the deceased mother who divided the estate between her two children (it would have been wise and right for her to leave some special gift to each grandchild), so it is now the sister who wants to thwart her dead mother's will. Since the mother's equal division of the estate strikes me as eminently fair, thwarting her will constitutes a grotesque post-death violation of the fifth commandment, "Honor your father and mother."
The sister's self-serving nature seems apparent to me in yet another way. I somehow doubt that if you and your fiancé marry and the next year have quadruplets, she would agree that the estate should be reconfigured to afford your children the larger share. Instead, she would probably come up with another self-serving argument, such as "Well, the estate should only go to those grandchildren whom Grandma personally knew."
Your fiancé's sister undoubtedly insists that her reasoning is not selfish but merely the right thing to do. Therefore, her brother could suggest that she now inform her three children that when they grow up, if one of them does not marry or is infertile, he or she will receive a smaller share in the estate than those siblings who do have children. She can further increase family harmony by making it known that the child who has more children will receive more money.
It appears that for the foreseeable future, your fiancé's best hope for having a family will be to make one with you. God willing, at some point, his sister might change her attitude, and he will then be able to reestablish a relationship with her.
You recently argued that parents should always leave their children equal shares in the estate, because any unequal division will likely lead to one child feeling less loved, and to bitterness between the siblings. In my family, just the opposite happened. My mother-in-law and her brother have not been on speaking terms with each other because of their father's will. In that case, the father did divide the main part of his estate, a thriving hardware store, equally. However, because her brother had worked full-time running the store for many years, he believed he was entitled to own the store outright. Now he has to buy out his sister to be sole owner.
It seems to me that in this case, the father did act unwisely, but not because he divided the estate equally. He had, I believe, a moral obligation to make known to his son that he intended to split the store equally between his two children. The son then could have made a decision whether he wished to continue working in the store, or whether he would prefer to go out on his own.
I'm also curious to know how the son came to make the assumption that he was going to be given full ownership of the store. Such an assumption might well have made sense if he worked there on a volunteer basis, while the sister refused to help out. But since he earned his living from working in the store, then why should he also be the store's sole inheritor? After all, his father started the business and brought him in, thereby providing him with an income over the years. It doesn't seem unfair that a father would want his two children to have an equal inheritance.
What this case underscores to me is the importance of parents discussing things with children while they are still alive and thereby avoiding leaving behind unpleasant emotional legacies. How sad this father would be to learn that his two beloved children do not speak to each other.
Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," from Bell Tower/Crown.