Did you ever wish you had a rich uncle? Well, I once did. Unfortunately, because he was straight, he married a woman, and they had two children. So, even when I was just a lad, some sixty years ago, I knew I would never see a cent of that money: when he died, it would go to his wife; and should she predecease him, his children would naturally get it all.
As a result, when I received a call from a genealogist about ten years ago, saying that a mysterious relative of mine had died, and that I might be entitled to part of the estate, the thought of my uncle and his millions never crossed my mind. Instead, I was waiting for the man on the other end of the line to get to the part where this mysterious relative had been a Nigerian prince, and that for a few thousand dollars, I could clear away one or two legal obstacles standing between me and a large fortune. Much to my surprise, he asked for no upfront money. Instead, he was willing to disclose the name this relative, and pursue the inheritance for me, for one third of whatever I got.
My girlfriend thought that I should find out who this relative was on my own, and cut this interloper out completely. But that would have required effort on my part. Besides, by letting him have a third, I knew he would be motivated to get as much for me as he could. I believe it pays to be generous with one’s associates. So, I signed the contract, and sat back and waited for results.
It turned out that he had also contacted three of my cousins with the same deal, and so we all signed the same agreement. Now, I wondered why two of my other cousins, William and Sandra, were not included in the deal. I started to mention them, but then it occurred to me that this might entitle them to an equal share, and whatever the inheritance was, I knew it would go further split four ways than six. Besides, I said to myself, their father, the above-mentioned rich uncle, would be leaving them a lot of money anyway, so why bother them with more? So anxious was I to suppress all thought of those two undeserving cousins that it prevented me from realizing that one of them might be the mysterious relative in question.
As it happened, my uncle and aunt had died some years back, unbeknownst to me (as you can see, we weren’t close), and that somewhere along the way my cousin William had died as well, the entire fortune going to Sandra. I had only met Sandra once, for a couple of minutes, after which she excused herself and went to her room. Consequently, I did not know much about her. And one of the things I did not know was that she was a lesbian. From what I could piece together from various sources, she had fallen in love with a woman named Betty. Since there was no same-sex marriage at this time, Betty would have had no legal right to any of Sandra’s money in the event of her death. To rectify this deficiency, Sandra made out a will, leaving everything to Betty. As so often happens, the glow of love faded away, and they started getting on each other’s nerves, leading to a breakup. Soon after that, Sandra fell in love with a woman named Caroline, and soon after that a new will was drawn up, exactly like the first, mutatis mutandis.
When Sandra died, Caroline took it hard, but Betty took it harder. There she was with a will in her possession, leaving her all of Sandra’s money, which, had the affair lasted just a little longer, would now be hers. Sandra had spent most of it along the way, but there was still about two million dollars left, and Betty could not sleep for thinking about what had slipped away. Convinced that this prior will must be worth something, she hired a lawyer to contest the will that left everything to Caroline. Caroline was unmoved. As she saw it, she had the more recent will, and there was no need to let Betty have a dime. Things bogged down, and Sandra’s estate was frozen, with neither Betty nor Caroline able to put her hands on any of it.
Betty’s lawyer got creative, and asked the above-mentioned genealogist to search for missing heirs, in hopes of further complicating the case, thereby forcing Caroline to be reasonable. It worked. He found four cousins, including me, and through a lawyer associated with the genealogical agency, it was expressed that Sandra’s cousins were most distraught at her passing, were even more distraught at being cheated out of their rightful share of her estate, and were prepared to seek remedy before the court to see that justice was done.
Caroline was still of the opinion that the will left everything to her, and that was the end of it. She did not appreciate some of the finer points of the law, which her lawyer was at pains to impress upon her. With a trial by jury, he pointed out, anything might happen. To put it crudely, they might wind up with several jurors who were of the persuasion that homosexuality was a sin, deserving more of punishment than reward, the result being that the money might all go to the cousins, and none to either Betty or Caroline. “Pay the two dollars,” he advised her. Well, make that two hundred thousand dollars, half to Betty, and the other half for the cousins. Reason prevailed, and she made the deal.
None of this would have happened if same-sex marriage had been legal. Sandra would have married and divorced Betty, who would have received some kind of settlement. Then Sandra would have married Caroline, who would have inherited everything with far less fuss. Any large estate stands a good chance of being contested, but a spouse with a will leaving her everything is hard to beat. Same-sex marriage would have given first Betty, and then Caroline, the same established rights and financial security mostly taken for granted by opposite-sex couples. And that is the way it should be.
In the absence of same-sex marriage, however, Betty and Caroline were left to fight it out in a less certain arena. And the difficulties did not end with them, for they extended even to the cousins. As noted above, one hundred thousand dollars was granted to us four cousins to divide among ourselves, with the genealogist getting a third of each. At least, that is what it would have meant, had not fate intervened once more. One of my cousins died just one week before the deal was made. I figured that meant her husband would get her share. That is because, like Caroline, I did not appreciate some of the finer points of the law, which cut the husband out completely. That meant $33,333.33 for each of the remaining three cousins, or $22,222.22 each, after the genealogist got his cut.
I felt bad for my cousin’s husband. By all rights, he should have gotten his fair share. The proper thing to do would be for me to give him a portion of my own inheritance, and to suggest to my other two cousins that they do the same. But then it occurred to me that if I were going to give any of the money away, I should give all of my portion to Caroline. After all, Sandra wanted Caroline, the woman she loved, to have her money, and not some indifferent cousins about whom she cared nothing. As I could not resolve the question as to who was more deserving, my cousin’s husband or Caroline, I decided to keep the $22,222.22 until such time as my conscience should guide me to do the right thing. Moral dilemmas can be notoriously problematic, and thus the issue remains unresolved to this day.