Parent may have cheated the other out of significant money. What to do?
April 16, 2014 7:52 AM   Subscribe

I think one of my (divorced) parents may have withdrawn legally shared assets and the other parent may be unaware. What is my moral responsibility in this situation, or is it none of my business? Complexities inside.

Going through papers, I ran across a copy of my parents' divorce decree from many years ago. Looking it over, I saw that a retirement pension was supposed to be split equally at time of disbursement, which would normally be a few years from now. However, I happen to know that the parent with the retirement pension - let's call them A - withdrew it early for their own purposes, and I suspect that the other parent - B - is unaware. I also know that they had to take significant penalties for early withdrawal, which is one of the main reasons I think that B may be unaware. B also has seemed to be seriously struggling financially over the last few years - the years since the early withdrawal - to the point where I wound up assisting financially, and I think B would not have been struggling so much if they had received a significant lump of cash.

Additional problems:
1) I'm pretty sure that A has spent the cash on other assets, which would make it an ugly battle if B wanted to recover anything.
2) I don't have a great relationship with either of my parents, largely because of differences between their highly traditional upbringings and my current lifestyle. I haven't spoken to either of them in months, so would have to call specifically to inquire about this and could not drop inquiries casually in conversation.
3) I could be wrong - B could have received the money or some form of settlement and might just not have mentioned it, though I think this is unlikely. I have witnessed some of the financial difficulties B has had and they could not fake this.
4) Parent A has since remarried and thus any assets acquired would be joint with her and thus possibly unrecoverable?
5) I'm sure the divorce decree got mixed in with my stuff at one point and they probably both never wanted or intended for me to have it.

I am having a lot of internal struggling - I feel like the right thing to do is tell B immediately, but need some other opinions. So tell me: what is the morally right thing to do in this situation? Are there any ways to make this easier or do it better?
posted by corb to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd give B a heads up, so that B can involve the judge and a lawyer.

It will be acrimonious at best. How horrible that B may be expecting this disbursement and is planning retirement based upon it.

I would scan all documents you have and email what you have to both parties:

"I found these items in my possession, I'm not sure how, and I'd like to return them to the rightful owner. Please advise."

Or copy and mail them to both parties with the same note.

This way everyone is on notice and you're not in the middle of the nastiness, nor are you engaging with people that you would prefer not to.

Good luck.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:59 AM on April 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

I don't think there is one clear morally right or wrong answer here. Arguments could be made for either side. However, since legally it appears that parent A has done something inappropriate, I would personally mention it to B to confirm whether they were aware of this or not. After that I think all you can do is tell B to talk to a lawyer about it. It is probably not going to be clear without much more information whether there is anything B can recover/that is worth going through this for, but given that you have cared enough to provide financial assistance to B in the past, you might have a special interest in ensuring they get any funds they are legally entitled to - I'm assuming this is not, like a million dollars that would clearly provide significant help to B in their current situation. I feel that you could not be faulted for not wanting to get involved at all in such an emotionally fraught and unclear situation, though.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:00 AM on April 16, 2014

I agree that you should ask parent B if s/he is aware of this. You might also tell parent B that s/he can collect on parent A's Social Security if they were married for at least 10 years- assuming we're talking about US.
posted by mareli at 8:16 AM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that, as Ruthless Bunny said, B (based on your comment about A remarrying another woman, I assume B is your mother) depends on having a share in the retirement account. IMNSHO this would be the "right thing to do", to let B know, regardless of whether B is having financial difficulty or not, and whether B "needs" the money or not.

A person who will cheat another out of money in one area of an agreement may have cheated in other places, so it's important that the person who was cheated is aware, and can look more into the matter. If this happened many years ago, and your parents are very traditional, B (again, I'm assuming this is your mother) may not be up on all the financial considerations of divorce, or how to take care of herself financially.

This disbursement was important enough for them to presumably negotiate this during the divorce. But, maybe they negotiated it again later on a different basis.

A lawyer can tell you whether 4) is correct. Parent A appears to have broken a legal agreement though.

I would suggest that you tell B at a time when he or she can be supported by (non-drama queen) family or friends, as well as a lawyer. Have a trusted friend of hers there who is good at redirecting upset into pragmatic action.

No doubt you'd rather not bring this up, and it will be painful. But it's not merely B who has been financially impacted by this. You had to provide money to B. If B expects this money, and it's gone, you'll again be the one who will need to help B.

I'm sorry this is happening.
posted by mitschlag at 8:18 AM on April 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

It is often helpful to step into someone else's shoes. Imagine you were someone else in this situation - B's lawyer, A's accountant. There might even be a case made that you would be legally bound to inform B. So yeah - morally, you have to do something.

It sounds like you want to stay as distant and non-judgmental as possible. So, assume you don't know whether A informed B, or whether B is banking on this pension, or whether a dozen other mitigating factors took place. Just - ask for information. This might make it easier for you.

I'd draft an email outlining what I know ('Looking over the divorce decree that was left in my stuff, I saw that A's retirement pension was supposed to be split equally at time of disbursement, in 2025. However, I know that A withdrew it in 1999, and I am unclear on whether B knows or has been compensated for the value of it. Can you reassure me that this is the case? Given B's hardships and the need for my assistance to B, I am concerned.' ), send it to both of them separately, and inform them both that you're sending the same email to the other.

It's uncomfortable, but you having to support B trumps the discomfort.
posted by Dashy at 8:35 AM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd probably stay out of it. But I would add that your question is so dependent on knowing the people and events involved...I'm really just Internet-spitballing here in the hope it might prove helpful to you. My ultimate advice is to go with your gut.

That said, the reason I say I'd stay out of it is that I've seen a lot of divorces go a lot of different ways; and at least in my experience, when outsiders speculate that one party may be unaware of something, probably 70 percent of the time they are wrong (despite feeling "pretty sure" due to reasons X and Y). The more marriages you work with, the more you begin to understand just why it's properly nobody's business but theirs: there is invariably information and/or understandings that outsiders, including the children, are unaware of.

Moreover, court decrees aren't gospel. I've had this conversation with divorced couples as an attorney. There are circumstances where both parties want to modify their original agreement, totally amicably, but they see the original document as a handcuffing obstacle that now they need the court to officially amend. That isn't always necessary. If you're straying from the agreement not amicably, then of course you can turn to the court for enforcement; but if you're on good terms and don't need the court's help, then no, you don't necessarily need the court's approval. Going to court is a hassle, and it's no picnic for the overworked courts either. Consequently, divorced couples do stray from their original written agreements...and a lot of times that's totally fine and wise. [None of this is legal advice for any individual person or circumstance.]

So based on my personal experience with married couples and divorcing/divorced couples, and based on the very limited information in your post, I'd lean toward staying out of it. It's not your boat to rock, they weren't your papers to read, you don't know the depth of the lake you're wading into,'re smart, you know those cookie-cutter arguments, especially since you've already pointed out some of what might prove difficult practical realities if you did speak up and it turned out to be true. On a moral level it's perfectly appropriate to ask, "Will good come of this?" Ultimately it's not really a cookie-cutter decision. It requires knowing the people and circumstances involved. Inform your gut, sure, but then trust it.
posted by cribcage at 8:49 AM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just mail the stuff to both parents let them know you found it in your stuff, then let B decide how they want to handle it. You're giving them the ammo, let them figure out what to do with it. If you really want to go one step further you could also include a tactful note to B to forward it to her lawyer to review.
posted by edgeways at 8:52 AM on April 16, 2014

Speaking as someone who ended up kind of mediating in a financial dispute between my divorcing parents, I would recommend you keep as much emotional distance between you and this situation as possible. If relations are already difficult then no good will come of you being seen by either party as interfering or taking sides. Personally I would consider giving the papers back to B, maybe by post even, with a note attached saying "I found this and it belongs to you and A. It might be a good idea to check with a lawyer/financial advisor that everything is still in order as I'm not sure how long I've had it for." Then step back and let B handle it with professional advice. It's a difficult situation so you have my sympathies, but they are both grown-ups and this is their business. It's better for your own sanity to stay clear.
posted by billiebee at 8:56 AM on April 16, 2014

Just mail the stuff to both parents let them know you found it in your stuff, then let B decide how they want to handle it.

Presumably both A and B are aware that the decree says they are supposed to split A's retirement pension at the time of disbursement. corb is aware A has made early withdrawals from the pension (i.e., prior to the normal time of disbursement) but does not know whether B is aware of this. There is nothing about the documents in corb's possession that would make B aware of A's early withdrawal, so there is no point in sending these documents to A and B (who likely have their own copies of the decree).

Another possible approach would be to approach A first, saying something like, "I ran across a copy of the decree in some papers I was cleaning up and noticed it says you and B are supposed to split the retirement pension when it's disbursed. But didn't you make an early withdrawal a few years ago? Does B know about this? Was there some kind of agreement or settlement?" A's response could do much to guide corb's decisions as to how to proceed.
posted by slkinsey at 9:02 AM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

IAAL, but IANYL and likely not licensed in your state.

That being said: Huh boy.

You are not a party to this lawsuit--and that's what divorces are, make no mistake about that--and thus not likely under any legal obligation to do anything. If you do nothing, negative legal consequences for you are unlikely.

If you do say something--to either parent--you will likely nuke your relationship with the allegedly offending parent, quite possibly for good. You will also almost certainly be required to get involved in the resulting legal dispute in some capacity, though not necessarily a very significant one.

On the other hand, if you do not say anything, you will likely nuke your relationship with the innocent parent if word of this ever comes out and they find out you knew something and didn't speak up.

Which of those options is the better one is something you're going to have to decide for yourself. I would think that the larger the amount of money, the more force there would be on the "say something" side of the scale, but it's ultimately up to you. I don't think there's any way of handling this that won't have very serious relationship problems.

I don't envy you.
posted by valkyryn at 9:53 AM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what you should do, because every family is different, and every child of divorce has different ways of coping with it.

But I can imagine a scenario like this playing out in my own family, and there is no way in hell that I would touch it with a ten foot pole. Frankly, I know way worse things about all my parents' various marriages (yeah) that I would never ever ever bring up, because why set off a drama bomb in my own family?

If parent A told you that they did this, it was purely out of spite/selfishness/intent to defraud, and there was no plausible deniability that you didn't know, you might be bound by ethics or filial duty or whatever to tell parent B.

But seeing something about it in some old papers you weren't even supposed to have, and which don't tell the whole story? Nope. Stay out of it.
posted by Sara C. at 10:05 AM on April 16, 2014

Does B have an attorney? If so, could you let B's attorney know the issue and let the attorney handle it without revealing that you were involved?
posted by ShooBoo at 10:24 AM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

You have no obligation to cover up parental shittiness.

You do have an obligation to tell financially struggling parents about assets to which they may be entitled.

Therefore, the answer--ethically, at least--seems obvious.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:28 AM on April 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

I wouldn't want to walk in the middle of this, but I also wouldn't think twice about sending a copy to both parents as a "housekeeping measure". Perhaps with a note saying "Since it seems not all assets have been distributed yet, I know you wouldn't want this misplaced."
posted by politikitty at 11:16 AM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is due to be disbursed in a few years; in a few years the truth will come out either way. Since you are not close to either, I'd personally stay out of it.

Possible scenarios:

1. A withdrew early for reasons, and shared with B. No problem exists.

2. A withdrew early, did not share, and B is not tracking the money (so has no idea how much might be in there.) Once the truth comes out they'll end up in court, but presumably B isn't counting on a specific amount since they're not tracking it.

3. A withdrew it, B found out, and the reason B needed money soon after is because they had to take A to court (which they kept from you for obvious reasons.)

If you really feel like you have to say something, just call and ask B: "I found this paper that says this, and I know A took that money out early. Just wanted to mention it to you in case something shady is going on, but obviously it's none of my business either way. Do you need me to send you this paperwork?"
posted by davejay at 1:19 PM on April 16, 2014

Please consider that if your speculations are correct, in addition to screwing over Parent B, Parent A is also screwing over YOU (in that you had to provide financial assistance to Parent B).

Parents can be assholes. Do not let the fact that they are your parents obscure the fact that one of them may have done something immoral. Your obligation is to share the truth.
posted by Brittanie at 8:13 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your only obligation on a moral level is to say I found these papers and I know that the money was withdrawn.

You have to let your parents handle it from there.

And don't worry, this is not the first time that someone has done this sort of thing, there are plenty of remedies for the court...usually it goes like this: Get the money from wherever you may find it and pay it and if you don't we have a jail cell....done.
posted by OhSusannah at 10:27 PM on April 17, 2014

Speaking as an attorney, that is not how it "usually" goes in any family-law jurisdiction I am familiar with.
posted by cribcage at 8:30 AM on April 18, 2014

Response by poster: As an update - I said something, it turned out that she was aware and actually the distribution had been split at the time of the divorce to prevent him from doing anything shady! But I still appreciate the great advice urging me to say something, it really helped me sleep easier at night at least.
posted by corb at 9:21 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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