Several years ago, on a whim, my wife and I had our DNA tested by Ancestry.com. Last week we were contacted by a half brother my wife never knew she had. In fact, I don’t believe her father had any idea he had fathered a child. Without the genetic match, it is extremely doubtful whether the relationship would ever have come to light. (By the timeline and location, it seems he had a “fling” stateside just before being deployed in World War II. It seems like the mother never had any idea who the father was.)
‘My wife’s father died in 2008, leaving a small inheritance in a will specifically naming his known descendants’
My wife’s father died in 2008, leaving a small inheritance in a will specifically naming his known descendants. My wife also had a brother who died in 2016, just months before he planned to retire, and left a sizable 401(k) as well as a house. The death of her brother’s wife preceded his by several years, and he had no descendants and left no will. His estate was divided among his known siblings, in accordance with the laws of our state (Maryland). Both estates have long since been distributed and closed.
The newly discovered half brother has not asked for anything except information on his genetic family history. The whole family seemed genuinely excited to finally find information on his biological father, after years of searching with no real leads.
My question is this: Do the descendants have any legal claim to either the estate of his father or of his half brother? A more difficult question is whether the siblings have a moral or ethical responsibility to share proceeds of the estates with the half brother and his family.
I appreciate any advice you can provide.
Oprah bought her long-lost half sister a house, but that doesn’t mean you have to.
The statute of limitations on contesting wills in Maryland is six months. If there was no will and your wife’s half brother decided to make a claim on the estate within that period, he would have a case being a biological legal heir. But that boat has sailed.
Do you have a moral or ethical obligation to share the proceeds of your father-in-law’s estate with this man? The ethics of this situation are entirely subjective. It would, for me, depend on how much money I inherited and the financial situation of my long-lost brother, and my own financial situation too. I might also be afraid of offending him by offering him money, if he had everything he needed in life. There are so many variables that would affect my decision.
As to the moral question, your father-in-law was not aware of his son when he died and, therefore, he didn’t exclude him from his will specifically. While that may have created a legal and moral gray area had you discovered each other during the six-month period after your wife’s father passed away, I don’t believe that you are morally obligated to give him anything, if we are using the law as a guideline for what is generally considered right or wrong by societal norms.
There may be other opportunities to give back, because you believe it is the right thing for you to do, and because it would help your brother-in-law feel like part of the family and welcomed in ways that feel significant. If there was a family vacation home that your brother-in-law would enjoy, you could consider offering it to him for his use or even leaving it to all biological grandchildren, for instance. Or perhaps there are some treasured possessions that he would enjoy owning.
Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness. They can make people feel valued, loved and appreciated — and, given that he was inadvertently cast into the familial wilderness for so many years, such a gesture by you and your wife may also make him feel seen.
Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.