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Question 17: Must a widow leave tainted money to charity?

Four years ago Dad died, leaving everything to Mother. When she went through his papers and sorted things out with the help of the family lawyer, they discovered something none of us had known. While Dad carried on a legitimate business, he also engaged in certain questionable transactions. In some cases, identifiable individuals clearly had been cheated, and, following her lawyer’s advice, Mother straightened things out with all of them. In other cases, however, it was impossible to identify those who were cheated, either because the records did not provide enough information or because of the nature of the transactions—for example, some trades on the stock market in which Dad apparently took advantage of inside information. The lawyer and our pastor both told mother not to worry about the money from those transactions—she could consider it her own.

Dad and Mother had trusts, primarily leaving everything to each other, but then providing that in case both died everything would be divided equally among the children: my two brothers, my sister, and me. After Dad’s death, Mother changed her trust, skipping us and instead dividing everything equally among our children. She explained that, since the four of us are already well established in life, she preferred to help our children. That was fine with us.

Now, however, Mother has inoperable liver cancer and has only a few months to live. She is putting her affairs in order, and, talking with the pastor, she brought up the matter of Dad’s questionable transactions. The pastor took a different position than he had before, telling her the money from those transactions, including all investment earnings, “is tainted and should be left to charity.” Specifically, he urged her to leave it to a fund for which the bishop has been trying to raise money. This fund was set up to provide for elderly sisters of two congregations, now dying out, that used to staff many of the schools in this diocese.

Mother wants to do the right thing, but is not sure what that is. We agree with her that if the pastor is right, she should leave the money to charity, though that would mean leaving virtually nothing to our children. The inheritance would pay for their higher education, weddings, and at least something toward their first homes; we can manage without it, but will have to make a good many sacrifices and will not be able to provide the children with such a good start in life.

Since the pastor has changed his view, we wonder whether he is right. I do not want to be cynical, but perhaps his thinking has been influenced by the bishop’s interest in raising money for the elderly sisters. Also, even if Mother should leave the money to charity, she wonders whether she ought to leave some of it or all of it to that particular cause. No doubt the elderly sisters deserve help, but so do many other people even worse off.

Since you are in no way involved, we wonder how you would answer this question, and we will be grateful if you will reply as soon as possible.


This question concerns the duty to make restitution. One can determine whether and to what extent restitution is required only by considering all the relevant facts and applying the Golden Rule. The questioner’s mother perhaps made restitution that was objectively adequate when his father died. Now, however, she is in a position to make restitution in spiritual goods to the unidentifiable persons who were cheated, by donating to charity on their behalf, and, in my judgment, she should do so. Whether to make some or all of that donation to the fund for the elderly sisters is a matter for her discernment.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Perhaps the pastor was lax four years ago due to reluctance to ask of your mother, at that difficult time, all that justice really required of her, and perhaps he is being rigorous now due to eagerness to obtain money for the fund for the elderly sisters. However, we should not try to judge his motives, which, in any case, are irrelevant to the truth about what your mother should do. Therefore, doubts about the pastor must be set aside, and the question you pose considered on its merits.

Your mother certainly acted rightly four years ago insofar as she straightened things out with all the identifiable individuals your father had cheated. Should she also have done something by way of restitution for his other questionable transactions? There is a case for saying yes. The unidentifiable individuals were no less cheated than the identifiable ones, and St. Thomas, for example, suggests that restitution can be made to entirely unidentifiable individuals, whether dead or alive, by donating the item or money on their behalf as alms, so that they may enjoy the donation’s spiritual benefits (see S.t., 2–2, q. 62, a. 5, ad 3).

However, I do not think one can answer questions about restitution by appealing to specific norms. Rather, one must consider all the facts and apply the Golden Rule (see LCL, 444–58). Doing that, it hardly seems that fairness required more of your mother than she had already done. She faced a widowhood of unpredictable duration and needed adequate funds to meet her own needs; and giving alms on behalf of those adversely affected by your father’s actions would not have undone the actual harm they had suffered, which, as St. Thomas also teaches, is the main point of restitution (see S.t., 2–2, q. 62, a. 6, ad 3).

But your mother’s situation has changed greatly. Her widowhood has turned out to be brief, and she has a substantial amount of money left, much of it, according to your account, deriving from your father’s questionable activities. If her grandchildren really needed the money—for example, if their not inheriting it meant they would be deprived of an adequate education—perhaps she could fairly leave her trust unchanged. As you indicate, though, the needs of her intended heirs can be met even if she leaves this money to charity. In this situation, it seems to me that, even if there were no question of restitution, it would be appropriate for your mother to leave at least part of her money to those with needs more pressing than her grandchildren’s. Therefore, it seems appropriate that she give as alms on behalf of those harmed by your father’s questionable activities the entire amount wrongly deriving from them.

Of course, insofar as this conclusion is based on the requirement of justice to make restitution, the amount to be given as alms should be determined by reasonable judgments based on a careful study of the records. If a questionable transaction was not clearly unjust, not the whole amount gained by it but some fair portion is due as restitution. Even if a transaction clearly was wrong—for example, trading based on inside information—not the whole proceeds of the transaction but only the amount resulting from the abuse is due. At the same time, not only the principal amount of each wrongful gain is due but interest at a reasonable rate. To simplify this task and minimize temptation, I suggest you have a capable, disinterested person examine the records and judge how much of the remaining estate originated in the ill-gotten gains and their investment.

Your mother also wonders whether she should leave any of the money, or all of it, to the fund for the elderly sisters, considering that many other people are even worse off than they. In my judgment, both options are morally acceptable, and your mother must discern which is more appropriate for her, all things considered. But I shall offer some thoughts she might find helpful.

Since the extreme need of the very poor argues strongly for preferring them, she surely will do well if she leaves the money to some charitable group that would use it to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor. If she chooses to do this, I suggest you help her ascertain two things: that the organization she selects does not spend too great a part of its receipts for overhead, and that her bequest will not be subject to taxation.

Still, a case can be made for leaving some or all of the money to the fund for the elderly sisters. Assuming the two congregations are similar to others with which I am acquainted, the elderly sisters devoted their lives to serving this local church and were inadequately compensated, and now their congregations are dying out due to various conditions for which they probably bore little or no responsibility. So, the diocese does owe them support, and your mother’s bequest not only would help fulfill this duty of justice but could build up communion in several ways. Most important, your mother could communicate with the bishop, the pastor, and the sisters—perhaps even meet with all of them—and obtain their promise to offer Masses and pray regularly for her intentions: for the salvation of those harmed by your father’s questionable activities, for her children and grandchildren, for herself, and not least for your father. In this way she could assure that her bequest would benefit everyone concerned.

So, without knowing the persons involved or being nearly as close to the situation as your pastor, I nevertheless am inclined to endorse his advice. Specifically, I think your mother should make fair restitution by donating to charity for the benefit of those who were cheated by your father’s questionable transactions. And, while I do not think it would be wrong to leave that portion of the estate to some other suitable charity, it seems to me entirely appropriate that the bequest—or, at least, a substantial part of it—be to the fund for the elderly sisters.