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Break a Promise to a Spouse?

Aug 07, 2007


Question: My second husband left his entire estate to me, but he made me promise that I’d bequeath whatever remained of his money to his alma mater (we have no children). Since Ted’s death, changes have occurred at the college that I disapprove of. So I want to leave the money, in his name, to a very worthwhile charity I’m involved with – a charity I know he’d approve of. Is there anything wrong with that?

Our answer: The question is not whether Ted would approve of your favorite charity. The question is whether he’d share your disapproval of the changes at his alma mater and, if so, whether his disapproval would have led him to disinherit Old Ivy had he survived you. In other words, the only ethical reason for you to break your promise is that you’re certain - 100% certain - that Ted would no longer want his money going to the school.

We say this because nothing in your letter suggests that Ted wanted you to decide how to dispose of his money. On the contrary, the fact that he asked you to swear you’d leave it to his school is strong evidence that he didn’t want you to second guess him.

What you can do, though, is specify in your will that your bequest to the college be used for a purpose you approve of, provided you’re sure Ted would have approved of it as well. Perhaps this means leaving the money for scholarships, perhaps to a specific department. While the program you choose may not mean as much to you as the charity you’d prefer to support, at least you won’t have to hold your nose while you keep your word.

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