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My Dad Cut My Brother Out of His Will. Should I Secretly Split My Inheritance?

My 90-year-old father and my younger brother are estranged. I am on good terms with both of them. I’ve agreed to serve as the executor of my father’s will. I’ve seen it, and it cuts out my brother. I don’t know if my brother is aware of this, and I hesitate to bring it up with him for fear of adding more hurt feelings to an already tender situation.

I am considering, when the time arrives, giving half of my inheritance to my brother without telling him of his exclusion from the will, sparing him any additional hurt feelings. Would this be ethical, or does the need for truth override my plan? To be clear, I would not lie. This would be more a misdirection by omission. — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Yes, there’s a moral distinction between telling a barefaced lie and depriving someone of significant information. But what you’re planning to do is bound to involve the first thing. How will you explain the situation to your brother without lying?

There are further difficulties with your plan. In misrepresenting the will to your brother, you’re effectively tampering with the message that your father means to send. At the same time, you’ll probably have to keep your plans a secret from your father, because otherwise he might alter his will to foil them. That’s a lot of intrigue!

With family estrangements of this sort, you can’t expect everyone to be reasonable. But you might ask your father whether he really wants his last act toward his younger son to be so hostile. If he’s undeterred, you’ll have to decide whether to tell him how you intend to distribute your inheritance. Either way, you shouldn’t deceive your brother about your father’s will when the day comes. Given their estrangement, I doubt he’ll be totally astonished. Letting your father convey, via this will, his ill temper toward your brother may cause pain, but that’s not all that matters. You think your brother is entitled to a share of your father’s estate; consider that he’s also entitled to the truth.

A Bonus Question

My ex-partner is a literary translator, and while this is important and time-consuming work, there is very little money in it. Most literary translators have day jobs, usually teaching, as it is almost impossible to scrape together a living only doing translations. There are various arts or translating grants available, and my ex-partner has received many of these. But I feel bothered when I find out the recipients of some of these grants are rich acquaintances of ours. Is that wrong? Several times the money has gone to people whom I know to be independently wealthy; some have superrich spouses, others have inherited money and are “own a four-bedroom prewar apartment in Greenwich Village” wealthy. They don’t need the money, whereas my ex-partner uses the money to pay for the basics: food, rent and health insurance. I understand that there is prestige associated with some of the funding, but it disturbs me when I hear about someone who doesn’t have to worry about money accepting, say, a $20,000 prize that would be life-changing for many hard-working people in the arts. What do you think? — Name Withheld

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