If a person dies without leaving a valid halachic will, the Jewish laws of inheritance determine who will inherit his or her estate.
What follows is a description of the Torah’s order of succession that determines who is first to inherit in various family situations.
If a son survives the deceased, the son inherits the entire estate. He is the sole heir and other relatives of the deceased, including daughters, inherit nothing.
If two or more sons survive the deceased, they share the estate equally between them except that the firstborn son of the deceased father receives a double portion in the estate compared to his brothers.
If the deceased had a son who died during his lifetime leaving children of his own, these children, who are the grandchildren of the deceased, step into the shoes of their father and inherit the estate of their grandfather. The situation would be the same even if the deceased had a daughter. The grandchildren, including granddaughters, who now represent their deceased father for the purposes of inheritance, would inherit the entire estate and the daughter of the deceased would be entitled to nothing as if her brother were still alive.
If the deceased had two sons who died during his lifetime and one son left a daughter of his own and the other son left two sons of his own, the three grandchildren, representing as they do the two sons of the deceased, inherit their grandfather’s estate equally between them. Accordingly, the granddaughter would receive half her grandfather’s estate and the two grandsons would receive one quarter each.
If the deceased died leaving a daughter or daughters but no son and no descendants of a son, his daughter or daughters, as the case may be, inherit his entire estate.
If the deceased left no children and no descendants of any children he might have had, then the next in line to inherit is the deceased’s father. This is because, under Jewish law, the estate always goes to the family of the father. First one looks down the paternal family tree to find the nearest heir of the deceased and if one finds none, because the deceased never had any children, one looks up the paternal family tree to the deceased’s father. If the deceased’s father is already dead, one looks down the paternal family tree to see if the deceased’s father has any living children, namely brothers or sisters of the deceased.
Such brothers and sisters of the deceased would inherit his estate in the same way sons and daughters of the deceased would have done had the deceased left any children. Accordingly, if the deceased in this situation left a brother and a sister, the brother would inherit his entire estate and the sister would inherit nothing.
If the deceased left no children, no descendants of his children, no father and no siblings, one looks further up the paternal family tree to see whether a grandfather survived him. If the deceased’s grandfather is already dead, one looks down the paternal family tree to see if the deceased’s paternal grandfather has any living children, namely uncles or aunts of the deceased. Such uncles and aunts of the deceased would inherit his estate in the same way sons and daughters of the deceased would have done, had the deceased left any children. Accordingly, if the deceased in this situation left an uncle and an aunt, the uncle would inherit his entire estate and the aunt would inherit nothing.
If the deceased, in the above situation, left no grandfather, the search continues up the paternal family tree looking to find a living great grandfather or any of his living descendants. The search continues on in this way up the paternal family tree until it finally locates a living relative.
Because the estate under Jewish law always goes to the family of the father, not to the family of the mother, a mother does not inherit the estate of her deceased children. The estate would go to the deceased’s closest living relative of the father’s family. Similarly, and based on the same patrilineal principle, siblings who share a common mother but not a common father do not inherit one another.
A husband inherits the estate of his deceased wife but a surviving wife does not inherit the estate of her deceased husband. If the husband is already dead at the time of the death of his wife, the next in line to inherit her is her surviving son or his descendants or if she had no son, her surviving daughter and her descendants.
The order of succession, as described, is mandatory under Jewish law and cannot be altered. According to the majority of halachic opinions, a will made in accordance with the secular law of the land that bequeaths the estate to people who are not recognized as heirs under Jewish law is ineffective. Thus, for example, a daughter named in a will in the presence of a son must return the estate to the son, the rightful owner under Torah law.
This does not mean a person has no freedom to dispose of his property as he or she wishes. A person may leave property to daughters even in the presence of sons. But in order for such transfer of property to be effective under Jewish law, it must be done in the correct legal form. One can do it through a Will by Way of Gift of a Healthy Person, Tzeva’at Bari, or by way of a dying declaration Tzeva’at Shechiv Meira.