Reneging on a financial promise


Question: When my father-in-law learned we were planning to move to a community with better schools, he said he’d send our sons to parochial schools here. He paid for their first semester, but hasn’t paid since. Doesn’t he have an obligation to honor this commitment? He’s not hurting for money, and we stayed because of his promise.

Answer: We sure hope you’re not counting on your father-in-law to help send your boys to college (and we’re not kidding).

Breaking a promise is, of course, never a nice thing to do. But the extent to which it’s simply crummy as opposed to seriously unethical depends on two things: 1) the degree to which the promise involves a quid pro quo and 2) the degree to which the recipient of the promise is hurt when the promise-maker reneges.

So, on the quid pro quo front, did your father-in-law agree to pay the tuition in return for your agreeing not to move? If he did, he has a moral obligation to honor his commitment (assuming he hasn’t suffered a serious financial setback in the interim). He’s obligated, that is, unless his failure to pay has had no real consequences for you and your family. You make the point that your father-in-law isn’t hurting for money, but how about you? If you can afford the tuition as easily as he can but you just don’t want to pay it, then his failure to keep his word, while unequivocally dishonorable, is not such a terrible ethical breech.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at

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