Can a parent spend the kids’ inheritance?

by Jeanne Fleming, Ph.D. and Leonard Schwarz

Question: Two years ago my father left a large inheritance to my brother’s young girls – that is, to his grandchildren. Recently my brother used all of it, plus some of his own money, to buy a vacation home for his family (he says there are good deals out there these days). Was this ethical, or did Michael cheat his kids?

Answer: Not only did Michael cheat his kids, but he betrayed his father. Whatever his rationalization may be – that the whole family benefits from the vacation home, that the kids wanted to do it, that he’ll reimburse them someday – his what’s-yours-is-mine attitude toward his daughters’ inheritance is unethical. If your brother desperately needed to pay the heating bill, that might be one thing. But raiding the girls’ nest eggs to buy a vacation place? In our book, that’s stealing.

We hope you’ll contact a lawyer in your area for some advice. Even if you can’t take Michael to court – or can’t bring yourself to – we hope you’ll try to shame him into putting his daughters’ names on the title to the house.

Finally, we have a suggestion: If you have designated your brother as the executor of your will, say, or as your children’s guardian in the event of your death, it’s time to get out an eraser.

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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