Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chains of gold

Saying it with money

There are people who like to pick up the check. Some insist on it. I presume it's a kind of dominance game to them. See how superior I am? I have lots of money and I am generous! (Bow before me.)

I have often paid the tab for a meal with a friend and sometimes I reach for the bill without even thinking of it. I claim, however, that the habit has developed innocently. While I take turns with many of my friends, others are more routinely my guests. For example, one friend was raising a small child as a single parent. We fell into a routine of my taking them out for a meal each weekend. We all enjoyed the visit (unless the kid acted up, of course) and I could readily afford it. Another friend developed health problems and employment difficulties and began to drop out of a regular lunch group we both attended. To keep his company and restore him to our social circle, I began to treat him. (And others step in when I'm not there; we like him to stick around when he can.) And then there was the case of the penurious grad student, which is a condition many of us might recall.

You get the picture. My “generosity” is an act of enlightened self-interest. It provides me with more opportunities to hang out with good friends who I might otherwise see less often. There's no demeaning noblesse oblige about it at all.

Or is there?

I'm re-examining things and I'm just a little uncomfortable. Am I really as discreet and unobtrusive as I imagine myself to be? Certainly I don't wave cash or a credit card in the air. I don't lunge across the table when the server sets down the bill. I don't play the seigneur.

This examination of conscience is prompted by my brother. Since his older brother (yours truly) “ran away” from home, it has fallen on him to manage our parents' financial matters. No, Mom and Dad aren't incompetent to handle their own affairs (though their rationality is suspect in matters of medicine and politics), but their doughty local son already manages the entire family business and may as well, therefore, take on the relatively minor additional job of looking after their affairs.

And that is why he called me.

“What are you going to do with your check, Zee?”

“I don't know. I guess I could shred it.”

An exasperated pause.

“I would really prefer it if you didn't.”

“Why not? I don't need any money from Mom and Dad. I didn't ask for anything and I don't want anything. Am I supposed to feel beholden?”

My brother doesn't like it when I talk like that.

“Look, Zee. This has nothing to do with your disagreement with Dad, okay? Our folks have an estate plan and it's my job to follow through. Each of us gets a tax-free gift from them each year in a scheduled distribution. It kind of screws things up when you don't deposit your share.”

“I just stashed the thing without cashing it. That's all. I didn't go out of my way to cause anyone any trouble. I just find it somewhat irksome that Dad ignored my request to leave me out of it. Why don't they give more to our kid brother, huh? He's a single parent with young kids now. He could actually use it, right?”

“It doesn't actually work that way. All four kids are getting the same amount according to the estate plan and all you're doing is messing up the calculations. It's your money. You can do whatever you want with it. Give it to our brother, if you want. Do anything. But I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me clear it from the books.”

Hmm. I do rather owe the guy. His presence next door to our parents has relieved me of the standard eldest-son responsibilities. I have no desire to further complicate his life, even if I suspect that our father is dispensing largess at least in part to demonstrate his dominance. He's been a check-grabber all his life, even at dinners where someone else issues the invitations and has acted as host. It's a kind of game with him, demonstrating his overweening generosity. There are worse vices.

Observations such as these have caused me to grow up into a person who suspects that everything comes with strings attached—even (especially?) gifts from Mom and Dad. I'm sure you pity me now. Such problems I have, trying to decide whether to accept lumps of unneeded cash. Such a big favor I would do my brother, cashing the checks he sends out to his siblings.

I pondered the matter. My brother did say I could do whatever I wanted with the unrestricted gifts. No strings? Really? Ideas began to form in my head.

So far in recent weeks I have endowed a new student scholarship and made preliminary arrangements to boost another scholarship endowment to sustainable levels. I sent a few bucks to Roy Edroso of Alicublog and Gary Farber of Amygdala (and perhaps you should, too; thanks, PZ, for bringing their plight to my attention). I've contributed to a few liberal causes and a few liberal politicians. (Barbara Boxer may have never gotten my father's vote, but she got a few of his dollars.) And my baby brother's children are getting better-than-usual presents from their Uncle Zee.

Now if I can only maintain my air of discreet insouciance.


G. said...

Are they doing it in order to avoid inheritance tax? That's what my grandfather did, so that my parents wouldn't have to sell his house when he died in order to pay the tax, he transferred a portion of the property to their names each year. That might be how they justify it in their minds, that it's just practical. But they've still put you in a difficult situation and it wasn't right that they included you after you asked to be left out.

That is a great idea, to put the money to good use on something your dad would politically disapprove of >:)

Zeno said...

Yes, I think that's what they're doing, G. I know my folks were insistent on including me for multiple reasons. One is undoubtedly a "fairness" obsession, perhaps underscored by unhappy past experiences with lawsuits. The other may be to buy our love (or at least grudging devotion). Although I would have happily been left out, having some excess cash to spread around for good works is not the worst problem I've ever had.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

"So far in recent weeks I have endowed a new student scholarship"

Funny - I was just gonna suggest that. Glad to learn that I agree with a clever man.

(The teaching isn't great yet, but it seems to be getting better after this first semester.)

Zeno said...

Keep hanging in there, Sili. The first semester is often the roughest. Expect more progress.

Kathie said...

Speaking of checks left uncashed...

A few years ago I ordered 3 copies of a CD by a local singer whose music I greatly admire, as gifts to send to friends in the Azores. The CDs could only be purchased by printing out an online order form on the singer's website, filling it out, then snail-mailing it in with a check (i.e., not available through an online seller or at any local stores). Though the check wasn't yet cashed, my CDs arrived promptly, and off I sent them to my islander amigos.

Nearly seven months later, I received a nasty letter from the singer's office manager informing me she had attempted to cash my check but it was "bad" -- and demanding that I send a new check immediately. I consulted my bank manager, who informed me that:
a) the bank only honors checks for six months (pretty much SOP in banking);
b) no one had ever attempted to cash my check; and,
c) at all times I'd had more than sufficient funds to cover the check in my account (which I already knew, of course).

My bank's manager further advised that I was not legally bound to send another check (nor even to communicate with the singer's rep), especially since the original check was never returned to me -- plus I was quite angry about the insulting tone of the letter I'd received. So I did nothing (didn't send a new check, nor reply to the singer's office manager), figuring at least I could teach them a lesson.

Now this same singer has issued a marvelous new CD (I've heard several cuts on our local jazz radio station) that I'd normally have loved to send to my foreign friends as a holiday gift, except that after all this time the singer still only accepts mail orders -- but I'm still ticked off about my previous sour experience. Plus, I'm concerned that they've kept a deadbeat list with my name on it (having tried and convicted me unilaterally of petty larceny).

Gary Farber said...

Thanks. I only ever feel half way there, myself.

But we all should help each other out.

I like your math.

Disturbingly Openminded said...

Well, Zeno, it so happens that I am an estate/financial planner and so I'm going to side with your brother. It is so darn hard to get most people to think about and take action on this sort of stuff (particularly anything related to death) that when someone does (your parents) it would be a friendly gesture if you just did your part.

I agree that it is a shame that they didn't honor your wishes to be left out. In my professional experience, the desire of parents to be "fair" (however that is defined) is overwhelming so I'm not surprised that your folks are insisting.

FYI, the late December changes in estate tax law have created, for at least 2011 and 2012, a window of opportunity for very large gifts. Depending upon your parent's net worth, you might find yourself the recipient of a substantially larger check. So you might enjoy fantisizing about the good deeds you could do with that.

Kathie said...

I'd like to add to DO's good advice that one possibility you might wish to consider is to use some of these funds to establish accounts with your brother's children's futures in mind (e.g., college tuition), since for whatever reason they're already at a disadvantage in life by not having a mother who's on the scene.

You also might want to set aside a couple thou to finance your first trip to the Azores, to see where your ancestors came from!

Tualha said...

Another uncashed check story: I bought a BOFH cap from The Register and paid with a check. I got the cap. They never cashed the check. I tried to contact them about it and they eventually got annoyed with me and told me to go away. Years later, I closed that checking account. They never did get paid.

Faegan Harti said...

Way back when I was still young enough not to know any better, I bought renter’s insurance from a friend. He was an agent for a major firm. Had his own office.

I noticed the check hadn’t cashed after quite a while, so I asked him about it several times. He just shrugged me off each time. A couple other mutual friends said they had the same experience. So I let it go, figuring he was looking out for those of us in his close circle of friends.

Well, he was, but only in the sense that he was opting not to defraud us the way he was others. Turns out he had not been an agent in years but kept collecting money as if he was. Got caught and went to prison for several years.

Sad, really. He was a very nice person. (Still is, I suppose. Haven’t spoken in a long time.)

Perhaps like “Sir Trevor,” he wanted a certain happiness so badly he let it overwhelm him.

Disturbingly Openminded said...

Zeno, There is a tritism that has finally come to mind: It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit.

Don't think of these gifts as your parent's money or your money. It is simply money. If there is something that you would like to see accomplished and it requires money, well, don't worry about whether the money was yours or your parents.

You might even consider that trick that public radio uses a lot -- the anonymous match -- to see that even more gets accomplished.

Zeno said...

Perhaps we were separated at birth, DO, because our minds seem to run in the same track. Only the department chair knows the source of the anonymous matching grant for our last fundraising campaign for the school's discretionary fund.

Kaleberg said...

Pecunia non olet.

Zeno said...

Thanks, Vespasian, for visiting my humble blog.