Siblings and the shared obligation to care for parents

Coming from an Asian culture (Vietnamese, to be specific), there is an assumption of a duty to care for one’s parents, especially in their old age. Whether such a duty exists is not the topic of discussion here. For now, suffice it to say that I wholeheartedly ascribe to this cultural wisdom that has been passed down to me. Caring for one’s parents, I believe, is a sign of character, of a person with a sense of gratitude. And unless you’re an only child, it would probably be helpful to envision and discuss your and your siblings’ relative responsibilities with respect to your parents, before the rubber truly hits the road and in order for resentment and division to be avoided down the line.

Should responsibility be shared equally? If not equally, perhaps fairly? What does fairly mean? Are there circumstances when the responsibility should fall principally on just one — the eldest? The richest? The most able? The son? The daughter? The one without a family of their own? Is the sibling struggling to care for themselves or their families completely off the hook?

I posit, or proffer, that the starting point for such discussions should be an understanding that siblings have shared and equal (in legal lingo — joint and several) responsibility to care for parents. Just as siblings want to be seen as equal and treated equally by parents (modified somewhat, perhaps, by need or desire of the kids), they should then be equal partners in caring for their parents. And by equal I do not mean equal in terms of dollar amount, but rather that each bears in equal portion the burden of such responsibility.

Such a starting point should feel inherently fair. Unless there is a deep-rooted issue somewhere, in general it shouldn’t be hard to get all siblings on board with this one. A similar relationship that may be helpful to consider is parental responsibility towards children — shared equally, support from either parent need not be the same as the other and is basically unconditional. In the absence or loss of one partner, the remaining one shoulders all the responsibility. Same goes for children’s responsibility to care for their parents.

Once such a shared responsibility is recognized, then the siblings should conduct themselves accordingly. Having such responsibility should affect how one makes decisions (personal, financial and otherwise), in much the same way as a man should conduct himself differently if he has a wife and children, as opposed to when he did not. Having a family comes with responsibility to care for them, and that means living one’s life more responsibly than otherwise, with them in mind as opposed to purely selfishly. One’s life goal shifts to encompass, in addition to the pursuit of self-development and personal gratification/happiness, the obligation to consider and care for another’s needs and desires.

Returning to my earlier query — are there circumstances when the responsibility should fall principally on just one sibling? I strongly believe that the answer is no, as a matter of principle. In order to avoid downstream resentment, equal responsibility should be constantly acknowledged, emphasized and acted on. Now this doesn’t mean they each need to contribute an equal dollar amount, but (1) they must do so to the best of their ability, (2) absolute equality is a good starting point, and (3) remember that how one spends one’s money, time and energy is indicative of what’s important to a person.

Why is absolute equality (in terms of dollar amount, time, etc.) a good starting point? Because all else being equal, it is what’s fair and it’s very hard to quibble with. When friends/siblings share a meal, a fair apportionment would be to split things evenly or to split according to benefit (i.e. who ate what). You don’t tend to split according to ability to pay, unless the difference is quite extreme. And the responsibility to care for parents, as we’ve already established, is shared equally amongst siblings.

But, you say, one sibling is struggling to support even himself and his family. Surely he is exempt? While it’s true that supporting oneself and one’s family are conditions precedent to being able to support one’s parents (they are more primary responsibilities), it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still bear the responsibility. Caring for parents is a burden (financially, emotionally, physically) and that burden should be shared. Simply acknowledging shared responsibility goes a long way towards relieving that burden. And acknowledging you have that responsibility means you have to conduct yourself accordingly — you, your spouse and your kids are not your whole universe of responsibility so the expectation shouldn’t be that everything should be spent on them — perhaps hold back on certain splurges, take a vacation closer to home, buy a less expensive car that economizes on gas, perhaps live a bit further from work if that shaves off some from the house price.

Show me where a man spends his money, and I’ll show you his god.” -Martin Luther King. If you can’t afford to give a lot, give something. If a man says he loves a girl but isn’t willing to spend on her, one would question his claim. Of course, what he spends depends on his ability, but that’s no excuse not to spend and he still must spend to the best of his ability. And for the Christians out there, this is similar to the principle of tithing. No matter how poor you are, you owe God, and can still afford to give Him, a tenth of what you have. No matter how poor you are compared to your siblings, you can still afford to give to your parents a significant amount of what you have and of yourself.

Vietnamese-American, New Yorker, corporate lawyer, Yalie, Christian, business owner, daughter/wife/mother, lifelong learner.