Is It Proper For A Family To Split An Inheritance Very Unevenly?
The laws of inheritance are a fascinating study of halachic evolution. As most people know, the Torah’s inheritance laws are quite clear: only sons inherit, and a firstborn son inherits a double portion of the estate.
Over the course of Jewish history, a variety of tools have been developed by which the testator (the fancy legal word for the person bequeathing the estate) divides the assets more equitably between the inheritors. For instance, Rema writes (Choshen Mishpat 257:7) that a healthy person making out a will may indebt himself to heirs in the amount that he wishes to bequeath to them. A common application of Rema’s ruling is known as shtar chatzi zachar, which entitles daughters to inherit half the amount that sons inherit. This gift was generally made at the time of the daughter’s wedding.
Today, it is quite common, even the norm, for people to divide assets equitably among their heirs, regardless of whether they are sons or daughters, and regardless of the order of birth.
At the same time, these tools were always optional and never established firmly in place of Torah law. In fact, when Israel’s first Ashkenazic chief rabbi, R. Yitzchak Herzog, proposed the formal institution of equitable division of assets, he was strongly opposed by the Chazon Ish. It is one thing for individuals to opt to distribute their assets as they wish, even if it is not the mode of division prescribed by the Torah; it is another to uproot Torah law entirely and replace it with what is deemed to be a superior form of division in all cases.
The question then is: Is it proper for a family to split and inheritance very unevenly?
In the typical case, it is indeed improper nowadays. When the Torah was given, the economy was mostly agrarian, which favored the consolidation of family estates. Daughters who married joined their husbands’ families in their homesteads. Indeed, our Sages throughout history have met these changing realities with the tools described above, reflecting an understanding that the Torah’s prescribed form of distribution is not optimized for every situation – and nowadays, for very few situations. Thus, it can indeed be deemed improper to divide an estate unevenly, even in the manner that the Torah prescribes.
That said, there are exceptions to every rule. There are families in which one sibling struggles or has greater expenses than another. In such cases, it can be worthwhile for parents to will a disproportionate portion of the estate to a particular child, preferably including their explanation in the will.
– Rabbi Elli Fischer is a translator, writer, and historian. He edits Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha in English, cofounded HaMapah, a project to quantify and map rabbinic literature, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus. Follow him @adderabbi on Twitter or listen to his podcast, “Down the Rabbi Hole.”
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One of the most common situations for serious machlokes nowadays is the parsha of yerusha. Many a family have been torn apart to the point of not talking to each other and not attending family simchas over inheritance disputes. Much of the heartache could be avoided if the parent would have created a clear halachically and legally valid will at a time in life where he is clearly in control of his faculties. It is an obligation upon everyone to make sure that they don’t leave their heirs in a state of doubt where machlokes can creep in. Many recommend doing this as young as sixty but certainly not later than age seventy. The yetzer hara likes to tell people that his children are different and would never fight over money. Experience has proven the fallacy of that mentality.
When creating a will one must be very careful to do so in a fully fair and equitable way. Our Chazal caution us “L’olam lo yeshana adam ben bain habanim,” not do differentiate among your children. Even if there are valid reasons to bequeath more to one child, it should only be done if the reason is fully understood by the other children, and a rav should be consulted. If a person feels one child needs or deserves the money more, he should give it during his lifetime in a very discreet way. In general, it is advisable to give as much as possible while still alive where the relationship can be strengthened from the gifts. A wise man once said, “It’s better to give with a warm hand than with a cold hand.”
– Rabbi Yehoshua Heber is Rav of Khal Tomchai Torah at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Dayan at Bdatz Mishptai Yisrael
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Our Torah is very clear on the laws of inheritance. In brief the eldest son takes two parts and the remaining sons divide the rest equally. The daughters receive nothing except if they are the only children of the deceased.
Without getting into details of this process, our sages have devised a way for a parent to bequeath to their children any amount of the inheritance and to exclude or include as they wish, for a child to receive a greater or smaller inheritance.
This formula is widespread in Israel and it is a daily and common occurrence in the preparation of wills.
Thus, in answer to your query, a parent has the ability to divide their wealth and bequeath It to their children any way they want.
Having said this, a parent should be very careful before doing this, as it will no doubt cause dissension and hurt feelings amongst the children. Families have broken up because of inheritance issues and I believe the last thing that a parent would want is for their children to fight over their inheritance.
– Rabbi Mordechai Weiss lives in Efrat Israel and previously served as an elementary and high school principal in New Jersey and Connecticut. He was also the founder and rav of Young Israel of Margate, New Jersey. His email is [email protected].