Legal vs Ethical Responsibilities

The Post-Thanksgiving Blues

Reflections Bring Good Cheer

With any luck, you have finished waving goodbye to the last of the relatives and returned to your home.  Home, a place where you can reminisce in private about all of the real and imagined slights, jabs and jibes made by that graceless, greedy, egocentric, are-you-sure-we-are-even-related mob.  

Too soon?  

Let’s steer your emotions towards a more productive use by reflecting on the differences between your moral obligation and your legal obligation to your family.

What Things Aren’t Considered Your Legal Obligation?

  • You have no legal obligation to support your child after he or she reaches the age of 18. That includes college, counseling, clothes, cell phone, food and insurance.
  • You have no legal obligation to provide anything other than necessaries for your spouse.   For most people, that knocks out the Lexus, the caviar and the second home.  
  • You have no legal obligation to support your parents.
  • You have no legal obligation to support your siblings or their spouses.  
  • You have no legal obligation to support your step-children.
  • You have no legal obligation to support your ex-spouse. 
  • You have no legal obligation to support your significant other, and that goes double for his or her children, friends and pets.
  • You have no legal obligation to name your children as beneficiaries in your will.   
  • You have no legal obligation to name your children as beneficiaries of your retirement account, life insurance, or investment accounts.
  • You have no legal obligation to name your spouse as beneficiary in your will.
  • You have no legal obligation to name your spouse as beneficiary of your life insurance or investments. (You may have a legal obligation to name your spouse beneficiary of your retirement account, but that is another column.) 
  • You have no legal obligation to treat your children equally.
  • You have no legal obligation to divide your estate evenly among your children. 
  • You have no legal obligation to designate the eldest of your children as your primary agent under your financial and medical powers of attorney. Birth order is irrelevant.
  • You have no legal obligation to share your financial information with your children, consult with them before you make a financial decision, or include them in your estate planning.
  • You have no legal obligation to listen to your relative’s gossip or to put up with mean-spirited behavior.  

That is a lot of freedom.  So how can you mess it up? Easily.

How Do You End Up With Unwanted Legal Obligations?

  • Be the subject of a court order, such as a divorce decree.  
  • Sign a cohabitation agreement that obligates you to pay one or more expenses.  
  • Be a patsy.  
  • Sign on as a “responsible party” for ongoing expenses such as nursing homes.  
  • Guarantee someone else’s debt, such as an auto or college loan.
  • Enter into a partnership with a family member or friend.  
  • Repeatedly introduce your significant other as your spouse.
  • Be unclear about whether money exchanged is a loan or a gift.

And, finally, mentally replace the words “no legal obligation” with the words “a moral obligation.”  

Keep this in mind and your next family gathering may even be enjoyable.

Virginia Hammerle is the President of Hammerle Finley Law Firm.   To sign up for the firm newsletter,  email legaltalktexas@hammerle.comEmployment opportunities available.

This article does not constitute legal advice.