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The Torah’s rules have a predominantly male order of inheritance, and Jewish men who wish to leave assets to their wives and daughters must create an estate plan that goes beyond a last will and testament.
The problem stems from the secular community and conventional state laws, where it’s common for wives to be the primary beneficiaries of their late husband’s estates. It’s also common for children of any gender to inherit equal portions of their parent’s estates. However, Jews throughout the centuries have used halachic wills to deal with civil inheritance laws that run counter to the Torah’s laws.
The Torah’s Rules of Inheritance
The Torah has many different rules for inheritance, including:
- Only male descendants can inherit their father’s estate.
- If there are no male descendants, the decedent’s daughters and their male descendants can inherit the estate. If the daughters have no sons, then their daughters can inherit the estate.
- If a decedent has no descendants, then their father and brothers can inherit their estate.
- A husband inherits his wife’s estate, but a wife can’t inherit her husband’s estate.
- The firstborn son is entitled to a double share of his father’s estate.
- A widow is entitled to have her basic living needs met by her late husband’s estate unless she remarries or claims whatever lump sum might be due to her under the ketubah, which is their marriage contract.
- Unmarried daughters are entitled to support and maintenance from their father’s estate until they reach maturity. They are also entitled to a dowry when they get married.
These inheritance rules differ from secular law because according to state law, in the absence of a valid will, a decedent’s estate usually passes to their surviving spouse and then to their surviving descendants, in a specific order, regardless of gender. Under Jewish law, the spouse and female children would be guilty of theft.
A Halachic Will and Promissory Note
If a Jewish man wants his wife to inherit his entire estate or pass assets to sons and daughters in equal shares, they can start by drafting and executing a last will and testament. Then a promissory note is prepared stating that they owe their wife and daughters a sum of money that is substantially larger than the estate’s value. This debt is enforceable against heirs (Jewish sons).
The duty to repay the debt has two conditions. The first condition is that the debt can’t be claimed until the moment before your death. This ensures that your wife and daughters can’t claim the debt while you’re still alive.
The second condition is for your sons to agree to carry out the terms of your last will and testament, which cancels the debt owed to your wife and daughters. If, after your death, your sons decide not to honor the terms of your last will and testament, then they will owe their mother and sisters the debt, which is larger than your whole estate. So, the substantial size of the debt encourages your sons to comply with your wishes.
By working with an estate planning attorney who understands Jewish law and customs, you can create an estate plan that expresses your wishes while respecting the Torah. There are a number of halachic methods to distribute a significant part of your estate, as long as a certain percentage is distributed according to the Torah’s laws of inheritance. It’s imperative that all changes from the Torah’s laws of inheritance be stipulated and finalized prior to your death. If, for any reason, you fail to prepare a halachic will, your estate will be probated according to state law and may run counter to your true wishes.
We hope you found this article helpful. If you have questions or would like to discuss a personal legal matter, please contact our office at 732-972-1600. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you.
This article offers a summary of aspects of estate planning. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, you should contact an attorney.