Take money from estranged dad?
December 23, 2006 7:15 PM   Subscribe

What should I do with a monetary Christmas gift from my estranged father?

My father and I have spoken only once in the last year. We've never been close, and last year, he married a woman I dislike who also dislikes me. He's changed a lot because of this new relationship, and not for the better; he's become self-centered and cold to me and other family members. We had a series of very painful arguments, and I concluded that my life is more peaceful and pleasant without him in it.

I don't hate him, and he hasn't done anything egregious (he's not a criminal, an abuser, or anything like that). I just find that my life is a lot less stressful when I'm not in contact with him, and I'm not really interested in having a relationship with him now.

I have thought through the repercussions of this decision and am not interested at this time in changing my mind. I am seeing a therapist, and I am open to the possibility that this may someday change, but I'm committed right now to maintaining this distance from him.

However, he has apparently changed his mind. Yesterday, I received a Christmas card from him containing a check for $200. The card had a handwritten note in which he wished me a Merry Christmas (a holiday he knows I don't celebrate and he does, but about which we've maintained a truce in the past) and mentioned an ongoing health problem he's been having (which I first read as a guilt trip, but now I'm thinking could just be an obtuse attempt at making conversation about what's going on in his life). The card was also signed by his new wife, who said she hoped I enjoyed this gift from the two of them.

The way I see it, there are four possible responses here:

1) Cash the check and do not respond to the card. This seems like the easiest path, but my mother raised me to believe that one does not accept a gift without sending a thank you note, and it seems more than a little hypocritical and rude to take his money while refusing all other contact.

2) Cash the check and send a thank you note. I fear, however, that he would take even the most perfunctory note as an invitation for further contact, which I do not want. And again, this still means that I'd be taking his money while refusing a larger relationship, which feels slimy.

3) Don't cash the check and don't respond. This feels ungrateful and a more than a little rude too. Not to mention, it opens the possibility of him assuming the card never arrived and calling or writing to follow up.

4) Send the check back, either on its own or with a note explaining that I don't feel comfortable accepting it. But that seems like a slap in the face, and a stronger statement than I really want to make given that I don't hate the guy and he's not a horrible person. Also, I have taken money from him in the past when I was broke and needed it, so I worry that this would be seen as more of a "screw you" than I mean it to be.

Basically, I'm looking for a way out of this that involves minimal additional contact with him but also doesn't unduly cause him pain or make it seem like I hate him. I don't hate him. I just don't want him in my life. The money is not important to me. I'm just hoping there's some way to resolve this that will allow me to maintain the status quo.

Thanks in advance for any insight you may be able to provide.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Easiest and most painless thing might be to take the money, write a thank you note, and continue to have a distant relationship with him. There's nothing slimy about that; the money is just a holiday gift, after all, and changes nothing in any significant way.
posted by agent99 at 7:23 PM on December 23, 2006

5) Cash the cheque, and donate the money to charity. Send a thank-you note (including some sort of receipt for the donation) saying "Thank you for the money you sent. I didn't feel comfortable using it myself, so it has gone to contribute to a greater good. I wish you the best in the rest of your lives together. Goodbye, anonymous."
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:23 PM on December 23, 2006

You can explain things to him as eloquently as you have explained them to us. Why not send him a note, saying something to the effect of what you said above (including, "I don't hate you, but I am not interested in having a relationship with you and therefore don't feel comfortable accepting the check), and return the check?

In my view, under the circumstances, this is a graceful, appropriate, and respectful way to deal with it.
posted by jayder at 7:24 PM on December 23, 2006

I think dirtynumbangelboy has it about right. If you use the money (for yourself or for charity) then I think you should at least write a note in thanks. The saddest part of it is that your dad's wife signed the card. If your dad had signed it I think perhaps you would have a better feeling about it.
I assume it was your dad's idea to send the gift and surely you can take that as reaching out to you. Down the road you may not feel so good if you completely shut the door to him and his wife.
But the reply by dirtynumbangelboy seems just right to me.
posted by JayRwv at 7:30 PM on December 23, 2006

Um, no, don't take the money. If you take the money you are obligating yourself to him. Giving the money away changes nothing. When you take the money for any reason he now has an "in."

Call him and tell him to his face, man to man, that you're going to tear up the check and you don't want him sending any gifts and you're maintaining your distance. You have nothing to fear from him and you don't owe him anything. Make it clear to him what the situation and preserve your peace. It'll be hard but once it's done you need not worry about it again.
posted by nixerman at 7:31 PM on December 23, 2006

6) Send a thank-you note to thank him for thinking of you. Enclose the check.
posted by zennie at 7:37 PM on December 23, 2006

Taking the money makes you obligated. If you want to tell him to bugger off with no contact (and I think this is slightly more extreme than you want), cash the check and donate the money to a charity he'd hate, and have that charity send him a thank you card.

Alternately, tear it up. Don't answer any phone calls. Don't open letters (or, have a friend open and skim for serious news). It would be nice, but optional, to drop him a note saying you will now be rejecting all contact with him for the foreseeable future.
posted by QIbHom at 7:41 PM on December 23, 2006

Buy him and her a gift with the money and release yourself from a burden. A gift reflecting something you believe in.
posted by mic stand at 7:42 PM on December 23, 2006

Do this. Cash the check, donate the money to a main charity that deals with, either directly or indirectly, his health ailment or a health ailment that has touched your family in the past. If there's no such charity, find something near and dear to your heart. And send a very simple thank you note, because you know it's the right thing to do.

"Thank you very much for thinking of me during the holiday season. I've decided to spread your generosity to those who truly need it right now. A $X donation has been made to The Human Fund. I hope this note finds you both well and you have a wonderful 2007.

All the best,

It thanks him, let's him know what you did with the money and keeps them at arm's length for 2007. The money was accepted, the generosity passed along, and hey, there's probably some tax benefits for you, so everyone wins.

Life's too short. Don't put too much thought into being venomous in return to him. Rise above. Take the high road. Keep your karma positive. Your stepmother is a hag, but you're above it and her. He's evolved into someone you don't really enjoy right now personality-wise, but he's still blood and he's still your dad.
posted by jerseygirl at 7:44 PM on December 23, 2006

zennie says what I think.
posted by iurodivii at 7:49 PM on December 23, 2006

Since when does accepting a gift from one's father "oblige" one, at least any more than one is already obliged? Cash the check, send a thank you note, and engage in further communications if and as warranted.

Lots of people dislike people in their family; it's the nature of families, particularly when remarriages enter the equation. But being "committed" to maintaining distance and being so petty as to refuse a gift sincerely tendered -- too much drama by far, that ultimately will benefit no one.
posted by MattD at 7:55 PM on December 23, 2006

I agree 100% with zennie's post. Very sage advice.
posted by toucano at 7:56 PM on December 23, 2006

If you're feeling gracious enough, I'd go with zennie's advice. If you're not, I'd shred the check and not make any reply at all. I'm inclined to view the situation you described as using a gift as a means of manipulation. I think that taints the gift, and cashing the check and donating the money to charity wouldn't be a good way to "pay it forward."
posted by fuse theorem at 8:03 PM on December 23, 2006

N'thing dirtynumbangelboy and jerseygirl. It puts the money to good use and maintains the arm's length distance you prefer.
posted by Quietgal at 8:08 PM on December 23, 2006

I have been in a similar position receiving cards with cash from an adoptive father that I feel at best mild but active antipathy towards, and certainly don't want in my life. I spent the money on myself and kept my silence. Of course, I didn't have the option of not cashing the check, since it was cash.

In your shoes, I would probably ignore the check and card. But our positions may differ. I really do honestly hope to never see or deal with him again, ever, so I wouldn't mind sending a pretty firm buzz-off signal. If you're hoping for some sort of eventual reconciliation, you might want to maintain casual infrequent contact such as Christmas cards.

Simply ignoring the card and keping mum is not venomous. It's just not dealing with people you don't want to deal with, and not getting entangled with people who are negative forces in your life.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:09 PM on December 23, 2006

Several of the options above sound like good ideas, depending on how comfortable you feel with them. I just want to say this — no matter what you do — cash the check, donate it, send it back, use it on yourself — after this one transaction with him you are in no way obligated to continue communicating with him.

Cashing the check and sending him a thank you card is generous of you and polite, and maybe he will see it as an "in", but you don't have to respond to any further advances.

I am in the exact situation you have described, but with my mother. I do not wish to have any sort of relationship with her beyond a very simple, superficial and cordial one. Luckily we live very far apart, but she still occasionally tries to drag me into her drama. My rule is that I will respond politely to any well wishes, inquiries about my health and happiness and other general niceties, but any time she tries to contact me about anything negative, I ignore it. This works really well.
posted by Brittanie at 8:40 PM on December 23, 2006

Whatever you do, DO NOT just shred the cheque without telling them. This will lead to added contact with them because they'll be waiting for the cheque to clear and when it doesn't they'll contact you, wondering if their letter was intercepted or lost in the mail or whatever.

Either send it back with a polite note or cash it.
posted by watsondog at 9:32 PM on December 23, 2006

Funny how the range of responses go. I think all of the responses are equally valid, except the ones about it "obligating" you. It does no such thing. I'm not even sure how something like that would enter into someone's mind given the situation you described. Obligated in what way? Are you a member of High Society?

I have an abandoned relationship with my father. He was a jackass. If he sent me $200 I'd blow it on something ridiculous and not bother sending a note.

But, you don't sound like you hate your dad, or that he's a jackass. Therefore, jerseygirl's response is my favorite.

Take the money, donate to X charity, send response noting what you did. Donating a gift to charity is not an asshole thing to do, but it also sends a fairly clear message.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:43 PM on December 23, 2006

I've watched my aunt cut off all contact with my grandparents (for very very good reason) and if you want to avoid hurting anyone's feelings while also maintaining your distance, I would advise you to at least make a response to the card, even if it is only to say that you received it, but aren't interested in future gifts/contact.

Not responding will more than likely trigger a lot of guilt in your father and will lead to more attempts on his part, and probably more forceful attempts, to have some sort of relationship with you.

I definitely agree with the advice of donating to a charity, particularly one related to your family's background or your father's health ailment. (Or given the lack of "The Human Fund," there's always Amnesty International.) Write your father a brief note thanking him for thinking of you and stating that you're not interested in corresponding, and any future gifts can be made directly to the charity.

Someday you may change your mind and if you do, you don't want to be any harder than necessary to bridge the gap. Be firm about the space you need, but give yourself the option of change in the future. If you have a "man-to-man" saying that you really don't want any contact, it will be a lot harder in the future to get in touch.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:58 PM on December 23, 2006

Yes, yes, yes to jerseygirl, grapefruitmoon, et. al. You say you don't hate him, but sending the check back or shredding it would send a message similar to that. The charity thing (especially a relevant one) says, "I still care about you, but I don't want or need your money" and the "Have a wonderful 2007" part hopefully gets across that you're in no hurry to re-gain contact. Don't feel any obligation to stay in touch, and make your wishes clear if he tries to.
posted by SuperNova at 10:46 PM on December 23, 2006

Send a thank-you note to thank him for thinking of you. Enclose the check.

Yep. Make the note brief and polite: "I didn't feel comfortable cashing the check, but thank you for the thought. I wish you well." Then just keep on doing what you've been doing: keeping him at a distance until you feel like bringing him closer (which may be never).

I think any kind of cashing of the check, for charity or not, is a mistake. Not for any "obligation" it puts you under (it doesn't; that's what "gift" means) but simply to avoid the leverage it may give your father and his wife *in their minds.* If you really want to continue keeping them at bay, return the check with a very short, polite thank you. You don't have to explain why you don't feel comfortable cashing it; just say you don't feel comfortable and leave it at that.
posted by mediareport at 11:12 PM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

As much as it lifts my heart to see anyone suggest donating to Amnesty International, I fail to understand how using a charity as an impersonal middleman to "send a message" is a kinder rejection than writing a simple note and letting the man have his money back. For example:
Hi Dad, Thank you for thinking of me with the Christmas card. I didn't want to cash the check, so it's enclosed. All I really want right now is some peace in my life. I wish you fine health and happiness in the new year. Let's hope it's a good one. Love, Zennie
Sad? Yes. Of course. This whole situation is. But dancing around the issue only turns it into a drama.
posted by zennie at 12:06 AM on December 24, 2006

I'd like to add my voice to the chorus that says you would not be obligated in any circumstance. An obligation cannot be forced on another person. If you do not accept the obligation, then you have no obligation. But, your dad, obviously, may not see it this way, which could create a problem.

Also, zennie sounds spot on.
posted by philomathoholic at 1:24 AM on December 24, 2006

i second what mic stand said.
he's your dad. life is too short to play games. use the money to buy him and his wife appropriate gifts, send him a letter telling him exactly how you feel, you might even enclose a printout of this thread. if you know of a book that explains the perspective of estranged children with less than optimal parents, that might be an appropriate gift too. ball in his court now.
posted by bruce at 2:30 AM on December 24, 2006

Miss manners says send a thank you note and then spend the money. Mr. me says open yourself up to a relationship with your father, he obviously wants it and you will probably be glad you did in the end, especially if he dies. There's no resolving things after that.
posted by JamesMessick at 5:18 AM on December 24, 2006

I didn't talk to my abusive, alcoholic father for 7 years. During that time, I got a lot of cards and gifts. The feelings of wanting to send stuff back usually came from a place of anger in myself.

Keeping it doesn't mean you have to change anything; it does not buy him an open door. You are not beholden to anyone unless you think you are.

Sending the money back would be interpreted as a hurtful act and would add fuel to the wife's fire of not liking you. Don't give her the opportunity. Gracefully accept the gift with a very short thank you note.

If your father makes an overture to have more social contact, then handle that as you want. But the gift isn't the right context.
posted by kat at 7:05 AM on December 24, 2006

whatever you do with the money (I know I wouldn't cash it, especially if I didn't celebrate Christmas in the first place) send a thank you note mentioning his wife, too. They have made a polite gesture, at least, it'd be rude not to reciprocate with a card. You said it yourself, he's not an abuser or a criminal or whatever, he doesn't deserve tio be treated as such.

The check, you can either rip, donate to charity, or cash for yourself, it's 200 dollars after all, not a sum so big that would really oblige you in any way.
posted by matteo at 7:49 AM on December 24, 2006

(and yes I don't want to repeat the point stated above that if he's not that bad a man you might one day regret that you had no contact with him in his last years, because I'm sure you know that already, because it is a valid point)
posted by matteo at 7:52 AM on December 24, 2006

Lots of good suggestions here (except from the people projecting their own much worse relationships onto yours); I tend to agree with JamesMessick: you sound like you might be open to a relationship at some point, you don't actually hate the guy, so why not try getting your foot in the water? You can always pull it back out if it messes up your life, but you might be able to keep him at arm's length and still not feel like you've cut him out of your life, which you might feel bad about later on. Just a thought. Do what makes sense to you, and I wish you the best.
posted by languagehat at 9:10 AM on December 24, 2006

Using or dispersing the gift does not in any way obligate you to your father. However, he may think it creates an obligation on your part. You know him better in that regard than any of us can ever hope to.

If I'm voting though, it's for cash the check, use the money for something you want but wouldn't otherwise spend your own money on. I would go with an experience so there isn't something sitting around the house that always reminds you of him. Maybe a class, or part of a trip somewhere?
posted by bilabial at 9:54 AM on December 24, 2006

Accepting a gift means accepting some kind of mutual relationship and obligation. This goes double for family. We don't talk about it, but other societies do (for example, in Havamal, "Always a gift looks for a gift.").

This isn't to say everyone keeps track (I stay away from people who do that), but gifts are given to strengthen bonds, as well as to make the giver and the accepter feel good.
posted by QIbHom at 10:05 AM on December 24, 2006

It sounds like they are waving a white flag at you. If you are feeling receptive to this gesture I would suggest you respond positively. If not, I would pass the money on to a favourite charity and send a thank you note on behalf of the charity.
posted by mycapaciousbottega at 10:12 AM on December 24, 2006

I've been in a similar situation (a family member trying to buy his way into my good graces after a particularly drunk and obnoxious Christmas) and I gave the money back. I think that jerseygirl has the right idea for handling the particulars. Good luck, I understand how uncomfortable this situation can be.
posted by lekvar at 11:32 AM on December 24, 2006

It's a gift. Just accept it. Not accepting it is slamming a door on the relationship unnecessarily. It would be a big mistake. Take the gift. Write a note. You're done.
posted by xammerboy at 5:04 PM on December 24, 2006

seconding jerseygirl.

Donating to a charity that helps those with his illness/condition (whatever the case may be) shows that you do care about him in the sense that he is still your father and (I'm assuming) you still love him in that "blood relation" way. However, a note (maybe a little cold on purpose?) would demonstrate that you're simply not interested in having a relationship with him at this point in time.
posted by mittenedsex at 7:33 PM on December 24, 2006

I'm, obviously, projecting my own personal history here.

In your situation, I would send the check back with a polite note, "Thank you for the thought, but I wouldn't feel comfortable accepting this. Have a merry $HOLIDAY."

Gifts send messages, how we accept or decline them does as well. It seems to me that once you know what you want to say to your father, you'll know how to respond.
posted by Skorgu at 8:55 PM on December 24, 2006

Add me to the chorus of sending a polite but brief thank-you note indicating the charity to which you made a donation with his check.

Also seconding languagehat. If once- or twice-a-year notes escalate into something with which you're uncomfortable, you can always scale back.

Until then, Christmas cards are the way many people keep minimal contact with distant family members.
posted by desuetude at 10:07 AM on December 25, 2006

Along the same lines as bilabial, you could use the money to fund your therapy. Kinda appropriate, no? (aka "health concerns of your own.")

Gifts aren't obligations. See Kahlil Gibran's On Giving, especially the last 7 lines.
posted by beatrice at 10:17 AM on December 25, 2006

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