Ask the Ethicist

Ask the Ethicist: How big a gift is too much?

Accepting a free ride to the Masters golf tournament from an attorney you refer clients to would create an obligation on your part

Jan 29, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

By Dan Candura

Q: Over the years I have developed a rewarding relationship with an estate attorney in my area. I refer clients to him and occasionally he sends a referral my way too. More frequently, he sends me something in return for my referral.

This started slowly. First it was a gift of fruit at the holidays. This grew into expensive wine. Then he started sending gifts at other time of the year as well. Last July he sent a dozen lobsters for us to enjoy over the Fourth.

I've let him know that this is appreciated but really unnecessary. I recommend him because he does excellent work although his fees are on the higher side for my community. He tells me that he does this to let me know that he values our relationship. None of the gifts are tied to any single referral but it still feels uncomfortable to me.

This came to a head last week when he invited me to join him at the Masters golf tournament. I've never been and it has been on my bucket list for a long time.

He says he'll cover everything — admission, hotel and even seats on a private jet that another of his friends owns. There will be others on the trip but this invitation was to me alone, even though the attorney knows that I've been in a relationship for a long time.

Should I accept? It is something I've wanted to attend for a long time and it sounds like it will be a "first class" experience. But I'll also feel like I'm indebted, not to mention that I am unsure whether a gift of this magnitude will require disclosure in my ADV. If I go, I want to go with a clear conscience. Can you make me feel better about the offer?

(More: How to respond when your boss makes offensive sexual jokes)

A: As hard as it will be, I suggest that you politely decline. And I think you already knew this. Your question sounds to me as if you want someone else to give you permission to do something that by your own admission makes you feel uncomfortable.

You admit that this trip, on top of all of the other expensive gifts, would create an obligation on your part. Your clients are expecting objectivity and integrity when you recommend another professional. It would be hard to persuade them that the only reason you recommend this attorney is the quality of his work if they also knew the large sums he was paying to provide you with first-class travel and attendance at an elite event.

Even if the attorney is well-intentioned and his generosity exclusively tied to business purposes, he is putting you in an awkward situation with your long-term partner. He is also changing the power dynamic between you and him. Gifts of this magnitude destroy the balance in the relationship. You are no longer equal. He becomes dominant and you take on a submissive role. That's one reason you feel conflicted. He's offering to give you something you want in return for something you are not inclined to give.

I suggest that honesty is the best course here. Tell the attorney that while you appreciate the gesture, you could not possible accept it. Tell him that you value your existing relationship and that accepting this gift would threaten it. Let him know that referrals should be given based on competence and that this would feel too much like compensation, and as such, it would need to be disclosed.

This would also be a good opportunity to ask him to dial down the other gifts, too. It is not that they are not appreciated but rather that they are unnecessary and extravagant.

Finally, you may want to develop relationships with additional estate attorneys so as to avoid the appearance of using one exclusively, especially one so generous.

(More: When an ultrahigh-net-worth prospect has needs beyond your expertise)

Dan Candura is founder of the education and consulting firm Candura Group. Write to him to submit a question. All submissions will be treated confidentially.

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