The Ethical Dilemma: Checkmate

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Checkmate: My forty-five year old son is a very intelligent and handsome man. However, he has the “Eeyore” complex— he thinks everyone is against him and feels I never loved him. Very untrue—I love him and am proud of him.

A few years ago, I gave my son and daughter each a check for $700 when closing their late sister’s estate. It took me several years to close the estate because their sister died without a will, and I closed the account once this was done. Now my son has presented me with the check for $700, which he found and had never cashed. That account was closed. I am now on a fixed income due to retirement and am not in a financial situation to give him $700 outright. I told him that the check was outdated and the account was closed a long time ago. He is angry with me.

What do you suggest I do?

—Past the Use-By Date

Dear Past,

I posed your question to a friend who knows more than I do about estates, and he said clearly you owe your son the money. You should thank him for having had the use of it for these years and not aggravate your relationship over it. My friend also wondered why you didn’t say anything to your son back when you closed the account and might have noticed that the check hadn’t been deposited. Instead, you pocketed the money without a word to your kid.

I have a somewhat different perspective, but I come to the same conclusion: You owe your son the money, even if the check has expired and the account is closed. Yes, your son was around forty when he received the check—not a child. His sister managed to deposit the check (right? or will you have another child coming to you demanding the money?), but Eeyore stuck it somewhere for years, perhaps expecting it to hatch somehow. Checks are usually good for only months, not several years. It’s not as though you didn’t attempt to give him the money—he just didn’t bother to take it. If the check had not resurfaced, he probably never would have missed it. And maybe you were too busy settling the estate (and grieving) to realize he hadn’t picked up his money.

Legally, however, you kept money that was supposed to be his, and you still owe it to him. I’m not a lawyer, but my research indicates the debt will never expire, and theoretically he could sue you for it and win—and then apply the money toward paying the legal fees. But this is the Ethical, not Legal, Dilemma. Your response, as my friend noted, affects your relationship with your son. As you indicate, it’s already troubled. If you refuse to give him the money that is rightfully his, even if he was oblivious for nearly half a decade, he’ll have more fuel to add to the “you never loved me” fire. If you do offer to repay it—perhaps in installments you can afford on your fixed income—he may still fault you for not turning it over in full at once. And even if you fork it over, he may just consider that his due, with little or no gratitude to you, and perhaps no regard for any hardship this may cause you.

You don’t mention your son’s financial situation, only your own. He may be as or more strapped than you (especially if he has a habit of leaving money lying around). If so, it would really be nice if you could give him the money ASAP. But even if he is well-off, he’s claiming money that’s his due and will add it to his persecution complex if he doesn’t get it (and even if he eventually does, since you’re stalling).

Although I was pondering whether the best use of the funds might be a few sessions together with a therapist, that option would likely not be satisfying to either of you. So here are the options: Pay the money, and you’re out what wasn’t yours in the first place, with nothing gained but a clear conscience (which, I hope, is priceless). Don’t pay and your son will have grounds to denounce his own mother for appropriating his own sister’s bequest.

Bottom line: Give him the money, and don’t begrudge it as though you’re doing him a favor or he doesn’t deserve it. If you can possibly manage it, immediately reimburse him in full. If not, work out an installment plan and stick with it. If you really, truly can’t (or won’t) repay him now, leave him an extra $700 (or something of that value) in your will, clearly earmarked as payment of this debt.

In the meantime, maybe you two can work on improving your relationship—and money skills. Here’s hoping he doesn’t expect interest.