Should a Parent of Two Children Split Inheritance Equally?

Imagine an elderly parent who has a fair amount of only and two children. One is wealthy with luxury properties and married with no children. This child lives far away and only visits occasionally. The other child lives close to the parent, has a modest salary, has children as well as several grandchildren and regularly visits and helps the parent. The parent decides that it is fair to leave her children an equal share of the assets. Is this ethical?

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics, he points out that when people who are equal are granted unequal shares – or people who are equal are granted unequal shares – quarrels and complaints arise. However, the challenge is deciding what makes two people equal. In this case, the children are unequal in two different ways: (1) the contribution they have made to their elderly parents and (2) in their financial situation. 

There is something unattractive about providing a financial benefit as a reward for a display of care. This type of benefit is risky because it can encourage ulterior motives for providing help for loved ones. However, this problem does not arise when more money is left to a child due to their financial situation. Other children may be disappointed, but there is less reason for complaint.

Many people move towards equal shares because it shows that a parent loves and cares for their children equally and this requires not comparative assessment. However, parenting often requires you to pay equal attention to your children, but the need to respond specifically to their tailored needs. “Equal love would be evidenced by giving our tennis-playing son a new racket and our golf-playing daughter a new golf club – not by giving them both a tennis racket.”

With these considerations in mind, it appears that leaving more to one child with the greater need would be permissible. The main point being, if the estate is to be divided to favor one Chile over the other, the parent should make it clear why doing so was necessary and consistent with each having an equal claim to the parent’s love. 

See Kwame A. Appiah, Should a Parent of Two Children Split Inheritance Equally?, N.Y. Times, May 26, 2020. 

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