[Cross-posted on The Faculty Lounge]
The “Ethicist” column in the New York Times Magazine was originated by a humorist, but it has lately been written by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a highly regarded philosophy professor at New York University. The format is the same; readers send in their real-life ethics quandaries, and Appiah provides them with advice. His answers are usually insightful and sometimes provocative, although I think that they are too often hedged with what the letter-writer “might” do or “probably” should consider. Even so, the “Ethicist” is the first page I turn to in the Magazine (after I have finished front section, the Sunday Review, and the Book Review).
Appiah’s current column, however, is disappointingly weak, and he missed an opportunity to dispense some meaningful ethics advice.
The question was about the letter-writer’s obligation to a dying friend, who had long ago fathered a child with a woman other than his then wife. The friend seems never to have told anyone else about the child, including his two adult children:
I believe I am the only person in his circle of friends and family who knows that he has another child with another woman. That child is probably close to 30 now. My friend has had no contact with the child since birth and almost no contact with the child’s mother. This appears to have been the way they both wanted it.
The letter-writer’s question is whether to defy the dying man’s wishes and tell the known children about their secret half-sibling, either now or after their father passes away.
Appiah does not provide a firm answer, saying only that the friend’s request for secrecy will not “have the same gravity” after his death. It would also “be good to be clear about his reasons” before deciding whether to override them. The equivocation was not necessary, as I believe there is a clear answer to the ethics question, although Appiah did not touch on it.
The friend’s conduct toward his secret child was profoundly unethical. Even if the child’s mother wanted no contact with him – a questionable assertion, which is almost always the favored excuse of a defaulting parent – that does not mean the child felt the same way. Nearly all children want some contact with their fathers, and every single one is entitled to financial support. The friend’s neglect of his own child was, to put it as politely as possible, dishonorable.
This implicates the letter writer’s obligations as well, because he or she has been designated as “trustee of the trusts he established for his two children.” But as the letter writer knows, there are actually three children. An out of wedlock child has equal rights to inheritance in every state, and thus the secret child has a valid claim on his or her father’s estate – which is at least sufficiently extensive to warrant the establishment of trusts. Most states also have “pretermitted heir” statutes, which provide for children even if they have not been named in a parent’s will, so long as they have not been specifically disinherited. We may assume that the latter did not happen, given that the existence of the child has been kept secret (hence, no mention in the will).
I would therefore say that the letter writer will have an ethical obligation – and perhaps even a legal obligation – to inform the secret child of his or her potential inheritance. This will necessarily also alert the two known children of their half-sibling, while at the same time righting a long-standing injustice.
NOTE: I will answer some possible questions after the jump.
Even if the friend has effectively disinherited the secret child under state law, the ethical obligation remains, if only to give that child an opportunity to challenge the will.
The LW does not mention being an attorney, so there would be no question about privilege or confidentiality. Appiah says that disclosure is optional, so he also does not consider privilege.
It is possible that the LW, as trustee, owes the known children a duty not to dilute their inheritance by informing the secret child. But LW could still tell them of the secret child, which would allow them to exercise their own ethical judgment about a duty to their half-sibling. LW's silence would deprive the known children of ethical autonomy.
A lawyer or trustee may have to put the interests of clients ahead of all others, but an ethics adviser should also raise the potential moral obligations to third parties. By omitting the interests of the secret child, Appiah's answer is at the very least seriously incomplete.
The LW says only that the friend had no contact with the secret child since birth, and almost no contact with the mother. It is remotely possible that he nonetheless paid some support, although that is highly unlikely given that LW did not mention it. We also know that only a fraction of court-ordered support is paid even for acknowledged children in contact with their fathers, which makes support even less likely in this case. Only 41% of non-custodial fathers pay the full amount of child support, and 25% pay nothing -- and those are the figures for non-secret children.
Even if the friend had made some support payments, that would not change the secret child’s interest in his or her inheritance.