Service of a Fragile Sibling Relationship & How to Make Things Worse

October 26th, 2023

Categories: Siblings

They could be siblings.

I disagreed with the approach that philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethicist columnist at The New York Times magazine, took in his response to a reader. The headline: “My Sister Hid $5,000 From Me, Then Her Husband Died. Do I Ask for the Money?

The reader and her only sibling don’t and never did get along and see each other only at funerals. Last year her sister admitted to hiding money from their mother’s estate and said she’d send it. On that promise, the writer/reader bought an expensive laptop.

The writer told her sister—who is “not wealthy” according to her–that she could send the money in the way that works best for her—monthly or in one check. But she hasn’t seen a penny nor has she heard from her.

She wrote to Appiah: “… light of” [the husband’s death] “and our estrangement, I’m not comfortable with cornering her. Should I just forget about it? Or should I pursue it some other way, legally or through her grown kids?”

Appiah responded: “Stealing from a sibling is, from the perspective of both secular and religious morality, obviously wrong. So is promising to return money that you’ve stolen and not doing so.”

Skipping to the end of his reasoning, he concluded “I agree that you shouldn’t insist on what you’re due while your sister is in mourning. But after a reasonable period has elapsed, you can remind her of her promise, letting her know that you actually spent money because you trusted her to make good on it. And yes, if you think it would be helpful to talk to her adult children, you should feel free to do this as well. Being shamed before their kin is one reason that people sometimes do the right thing.”

I totally disagree with bringing in other members of the family—especially the sister’s children. And buying so much as a toothpick before having the money in hand was foolhardy. The premature purchase isn’t the in-debt sibling’s fault.

We do not know the financial situation of the writer. Nevertheless, I would suggest that instead of an aggressive approach, she ask her sister if she is in over her head. Maybe there are other ways the sister can repay the debt in kind.

Under similar circumstances and with the limited information we have, would you treat a sibling so harshly regardless of the history between you?

8 Responses to “Service of a Fragile Sibling Relationship & How to Make Things Worse”

  1. ASK Said:

    After a reasonable period of time, I’d bring the subject up again. The sister was quite wrong to hide the mother’s money from the sister who wrote. But I’m not sure I’d bring the sister’s children into the matter. They are perhaps not fully aware of the relationship between their mother and aunt. As an only child, I can’t really comment about how harsh the writing sister is being…I’ve known a few pairs of sisters (my mother was one) and not all of them were or are kind to their siblings. They can be quite fraught relationships…

  2. Deb Wright Said:

    No, I would not. It is a very bad idea to involve a sibling’s children, especially as it is between two grown adults. I might say (if at least they are on speaking terms) to my sister that ” I know you have had a rough time lately losing Herman; I am so sorry for your loss. I am at present doing okay, but I am trying to tie up some financial loose ends. Would it be possible to send me the money that was the five-thousand from Mother’s estate? I would really appreciate it.”

    Then, if there is no response, let it go. For good.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If the sisters saw one another only at funerals, unless they lived thousands of miles apart or in different countries where excuses could be made I’d imagine that the children would know something was up because Aunt Whomever never came for Thanksgiving or the holidays.

    But that shouldn’t matter. It is not their business nor is it their problem that their mother dropped a ball big time. It’s not up to their aunt to report it, I think. Not a good or ethical idea to make a parent look bad to their children.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree. And I like your genteel, elegant recommendation for the next step.

  5. ASK Said:

    I don’t always agree with the Ethicist or Mr. Social Qs either…and I’m quite amazed at some of the questions both get asked.

  6. Lucrezia Said:

    The inherited $5,000 was not that sister’s to keep, and even if these two got along, refusal to pay up stands to sour the best of relationships. Unless there’s something missing in this story, the one with the money is a thief. When Mamma died, her obligation was to hand over the funds, no excuses.

    Dragging in family members is a clear invitation to create a Hatfield McCoy event. These ladies may not like one another, but that should not prevent to treat each other with respect.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Totally agree the sister who kept the money was culpable. I can’t fathom how the columnist came to the conclusion that any good would come from sharing the dispute with nieces and/or nephews. Embarrassing the mother wouldn’t open her wallet and would not endear the aunt to her sister’s children. All losses and no gains.

    Polite reminders asking for the money are the only viable option.

  8. Debbie Kunen Said:

    Debbie on Facebook: Agree with your approach. Money is always a sticky wicket.

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