The Halachic Ramifications of Wills

Special end of Chanukah special—and chance to give Chanukah gelt to my favorite tzedakah.

Paypal has a new useful feature that you can use to donate money to American Friends of Nimla Tal. This tzedakah distributes all of the money received to situations here in Eretz Yisroel of which I have personal knowledge. Usually, the money is used to pay for therapy. In addition, a special feature, good through the month of December, is that PayPal adds 1% to the amount donated. So, click on www.paypal.me/rabbikaganoff to donate, and you will be given the option to enter your amount. If you enter $100, for example, you  get a US IRS tax deduction of $100, and $101 goes to help the poor in Israel. No money goes to pay salaries or other no expenses.

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Before he embarked on the difficult trip to Egypt at the age of 130 years, no doubt that our forefather Yaakov made sure all his matters were in order. Thus, it is time to study:

The Halachic Ramifications of Wills

Should an observant Jew have a will drafted? What happens if the inheritance dictated by halacha is different from that dictated by civil law? If he already has a will, how can he arrange it so that it can be consistent with halacha? May one distribute one’s estate differently from what the Torah commands? In this article, we hope to clarify these shaylos that affect every one of us.

SHOULD A JEW WRITE A WILL?

The answer to this question depends on what would happen if one leaves no legally binding will. Who will become the legal guardians of one’s minor children? Does one want one’s property distributed according to the civil law applicable where one lives? The truth is that allowing one’s property to be distributed on the basis of civil law will almost always result in someone receiving money that is not halachically his or hers! Thus, by not writing a halachically acceptable will, one may indirectly cause someone to receive stolen property!

The following shaylah that I was asked recently illustrates this problem:

Reuven Stern, who had sons and daughters, did not leave a will, and his property was divided up according to the “law of the land”, without any concern about halacha. One of his daughters asked me the following: Is she allowed to keep the money that she has received? She knows that her father intended to divide his property equally among his children; however, he had never drafted a will.

I told her that she is obligated to tell her brothers that her inheritance money is not halachically hers. If they wish, they can allow her to keep the money, but if she did not tell them, she would violate the Torah prohibition of gezeilah, stealing (MiDor L’Dor pg. 2).

DON’T WE PASKEN THAT CIVIL LAW DETERMINES THE HALACHA IN SUCH CASES BECAUSE OF DINA DIMALCHUSA DINA?

This is an incorrect understanding of dina dimalchusa dina, that the law of the government is binding in halacha. Dina dimalchusa dina requires us to obey rules of the government, such as paying taxes and obeying traffic and safety laws, and prohibits us from smuggling and counterfeiting. Dina dimalchusa dina does not replace the civil laws of the Torah (the laws of Choshen Mishpat) that govern the relationships between Jews. According to all accepted opinions, dina dimalchusa dina does not apply to the laws of inheritance (Shu”t Rashba, quoted by Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat end of Chapter 26, and by Shach, Choshen Mishpat 73:39).

IS A TYPICAL WILL VALID IN HALACHA?

Shimon had his lawyer draft a will. He instructed his lawyer to have certain bequests made to specific tzedakos, and to divide the rest of his estate equally among all his sons and daughters. Is this will halachically valid? If it is not, what are the halachic ramifications?

According to civil law, a person has the right to choose one’s heirs and thereby to choose to whom one distributes one’s earthly wealth, after one passes on. However, according to the Torah, a person does not have the ability to choose one’s heirs, nor can one give away property after one’s death. When a man dies, the Torah has a formula for distributing his assets.

If a person cannot designate his heirs, does this mean that it is impossible for one to determine who owns one’s assets after one’s passing? No. In this article, we will present different methods whereby one can make a civil will enforceable according to halacha. However, it is important to ask a shaylah to make sure that one’s will is indeed valid, according to halacha.

Here is a case of someone who drafted a will without first asking a shaylah. Mrs. Goldstein promised her nephew Yitzchak that she would support him in kollel. She told Yitzchak that she would make sure that he was provided for, if anything happened to her. Her own children were financially well-established but, unfortunately, non-observant. Any money she left them would be insignificant to them in terms of their own means. By supporting her nephew Yitzchak’s learning, Mrs. Goldstein felt that she would be ensured of a good reward in Olam HaEmes. However, when she had a will drafted, she failed to make any provisions for it to be halachically binding.

After Mrs. Goldstein’s passing, Yitzchak researched the halachos about wills and realized that the property left to him might not be his, from a halachic standpoint. According to many poskim, taking this money without the consent of his non-observant cousins would be stealing, so Yitzchak decided to take no money without his cousins’ willing consent (cf., however, Shu”t Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 1:104). This consent was not forthcoming, and consequently, Yitzchak was unable to benefit from his aunt’s estate.

Unfortunately, even frum attorneys are often unaware of the halachic ramifications of drafting a will. Mrs. Goldstein’s estate could have been divided according to her wishes, if she or her attorney had only consulted a rav.

ONE METHOD OF MAKING THE WILL EFFECTIVE

One method of making a civil will halachically effective is to have ownership of the property transferred while the testator (the person making the will) is still alive. Thus, there is no need for the beneficiary of the will, called the legatee, to be a halachic heir since he/she is receiving ownership of the property as a gift, not as an inheritance.

However, most people do not want to give away all their properties until their last moment, since they may still have a need for them. Therefore, the date that the gift takes effect is delayed until immediately before the testator passes away. Thus, the testator may still use all his assets, without any hindrance, until the point at which he no longer needs them.

Based on the above, a will can be rendered halachically effective by making a kinyan that transfers assets to the legatee. There are many acts of kinyan recognized by halacha that transfer ownership. For the purposes at hand, the simplest kinyan is what is usually called kinyan sudar, the same type of kinyan that is used to authorize one’s rav to sell chametz. The testator lifts up a pen or any other utensil owned by someone else which thereby transfers the ownership of the estate to the beneficiaries of the will.

Although the act of kinyan is performed at the time the will is signed and witnessed, its effective date is delayed until shortly before the testator’s death. At that moment, it takes effect automatically, because of the kinyan that was performed previously. Thus the legatee will not own the legacy (the property given away in the will) until a few moments before the testator passes away.

Making the will halachically effective by using a kinyan does not require making any change in the will itself. After the will is drafted, one renders it halachically effective by making the kinyan described above.

Although technically not required, it is advisable to have the kinyan witnessed by two adult males, who sign a statement that they observed the kinyan. This statement can then be filed together with the will. Otherwise, halachic heirs can protest that no kinyan was made and refuse to hand over properties.

Although the above method is halachically binding, it has several drawbacks.

According to halacha, one can transfer property only if it already exists and is already owned by the person transferring it. Furthermore, one can only transfer property to someone who is already born. Thus the kinyan will transfer only property that the testator owns at the time that it is made, and will be effective only for legatees who are already born.

Since people generally purchase new properties and investments, earn more money, and include as yet unborn children and grandchildren in their wills, the kinyan should be periodically renewed. Although this is possible, most people generally forget to take care of it.

A more serious problem is that many of the items included in most people’s portfolios, such as bonds, bank deposits, and cash, are neither transacted according to halacha via kinyan sudar, nor through most other standard kinyan methods (Choshen Mishpat 203:1; 66:1). Thus, although the kinyan will work to transfer to the legatee real estate, ownership in businesses, chattel, and stocks, a significant percentage of the assets may not have been transacted in a binding way. As a result, the halachic heir could claim that the legatee did not acquire these items, and therefore that they are not included in the will according to halacha.

WHY ISN’T THE WILL VALID IN HALACHA BECAUSE OF THE MITZVAH TO FULFILL THE WISHES OF THE DECEASED?

It is true that there is a halachic principle called mitzvah l’kayeim divrei hameis, which literally means that it is a mitzvah to fulfill the directives of a deceased person. Thus, it would seem that the heirs are obligated to follow the directives of the will and distribute the property according to the instructions of the deceased.

However, the principle of mitzvah l’kayeim divrei hameis is extremely limited in its application, as we will explain. Relying on mitzvah l’kayeim divrei hameis does not guarantee the fulfillment of the terms of the will, for several reasons. Firstly, the Shulchan Aruch rules that mitzvah l’kayeim divrei hameis applies only when the property is handed over to a third party for the purpose of fulfilling the testator’s instructions at the time the instructions are received (Choshen Mishpat 252:2).

If this condition is not fulfilled, the heirs are not obligated to carry out directives of the will. Obviously, the implementation of these conditions is impractical in the vast majority of wills. Furthermore, even if every condition is fulfilled, if the heirs sell the property before the legatee receives it, the legatee will have no halachic recourse to claim his property (Rama ad loc.). In essence, mitzvah l’kayeim divrei hameis is a mitzvah that the heirs should perform, but it is not binding on them.

Furthermore, according to many poskim, mitzvah l’kayeim divrei hameis applies only if the instructions are given directly to the halachic heirs, which is not typical in most wills (Shach, Choshen Mishpat 252:7). Thus, mitzvah l’kayeim divrei hameis is not an effective means of forcing the halachic heirs to fulfill one’s will.

CAN’T THE TESTATOR TRANSFER THE PROPERTY THROUGH THE LAW OF METZAVE MACHMAS MISAH?

The words metzave machmas misah are the approximate equivalent of the English term “last will and testament,” meaning the instructions made by the testator for the distribution of his assets upon his passing. However, according to most poskim, metzave machmas misah has halachic validity only if made by a shechiv meirah, a deathly ill person (Rema, Choshen Mishpat 250:25). Thus, according to most opinions, it will have no validity in most contemporary wills that are drafted when the testator is healthy.

There is a minority opinion that metzave machmas misah takes affect even for a healthy person, provided he gives away all his property (Mordechai, Bava Basra #591). Based on this minority opinion, some poskim rule that if the legatees have already received the property, they may keep it (Gesher HaChaim 1:6, see Shu”t Maharsham 2:224). If faced with this question, one should ask his rav a shaylah.

DOES USING A TRUST OBVIATE THESE YERUSHA PROBLEMS?

I have seen poskim recommend the use of trusts to avoid some of the problems we mentioned above. However, I do not see any advantage in using a trust over simply making a kinyan. In the cases where the kinyan will not work, the trust will not work either, and the trust can create problems that the kinyan does not. Therefore, using a trust to assure that the will functions according to halacha is usually not warranted.

A MORE EFFECTIVE APPROACH – CREATING AN INDEBTEDNESS

There is a tried and true method that has been used for hundreds of years to guarantee that one’s will is upheld. The testator creates a large, theoretical indebtedness on his properties in favor of the beneficiaries of the will. This means that he creates a lien on all his property that is payable to the intended legatee, who is not a halachic heir. (In halacha, a person can create indebtedness against himself and against his property, even if there is no preexisting debt or obligation.) The debt the testator creates should be much greater than what he actually expects the legatee to receive, and may be larger than he estimates the value of his entire estate.

There is one important condition made on this debt – that it will be null and void if the heirs honor the conditions of the will. However, if the heirs refuse to honor the will, the lien becomes payable, thus depriving them of their inheritance; instead, the estate, or a significant part of it, is awarded to the legatees as payment of the debt. In reality, the indebtedness is never really used; its sole purpose is to enforce the terms of the will.

An example of how this method works will explain it better. Using our earlier examples, Reuven Stern wanted to leave property to his daughters, and Mrs. Goldstein wanted to leave property for her nephew. In both instances, the testator failed to arrange clear ownership of the legacy for the intended legatee.

What the testators could have done is to create a large, personal debt against their property to the benefit of the intended non-heir legatee. Thus, Reuven would have created a large indebtedness against his own property for the benefit of his daughters, and Mrs. Goldstein would have created one for her nephew. A condition would be placed on this debt that it is null and void if the conditions of the will are met and the heirs, in this case the sons, do not contest the will.

Both Reuven and Mrs. Goldstein would also have left a small but respectable legacy for their sons, something they should have done anyway, as will be explained later.

When the testator’s will is executed, the sons, who are the halachic heirs, have the option to ignore the terms of the will. However, by doing so, the estate now owes the full indebtedness. The result is that the sons will end up with no inheritance at all, since the debt might be greater than the entire estate. Thus, it is in the heirs’ best interest to obey the will, and at least receive the small inheritance specified for them.

Although this method may seem like a modern gimmick, it has been in use for hundreds of years. It was commonplace to write a halachic will to provide daughters with part of the inheritance together with their brothers. The father achieved this by creating a lien against his own property for an amount of money that made it worthwhile for the sons to fulfill the conditions of the will (see Rama, Choshen Mishpat 281:7).

It should be noted that because of reasons beyond the scope of this article, the indebtedness made against a wife’s properties would not be valid (see Kesubos 78b; Even HaEzer 90:9). However, the method of creating an indebtedness can still be used by placing the lien for the wife’s will against her husband’s properties. For this reason, when a couple has their wills drafted, the indebtedness for both of their wills should place the conditional lien against his estate, not hers. (This approach is suggested and described in detail by Rav Feivel Cohen in his sefer MiDor L’Dor).

IS IT PERMITTED TO DISTRIBUTE ONE’S ESTATE DIFFERENTLY FROM WHAT THE TORAH INSTRUCTS?

The Gemara tells us that Shmuel instructed his disciple, Rav Yehuda, to avoid becoming involved in situations where the Torah’s laws of inheritance would be overruled, even to transfer property from an evil son to a good son, or from a son to a daughter (Bava Basra 133b; Kesubos 53a).

Does this imply that all property should be inherited only by the halachic heirs? If this is so, why was there a widespread custom of providing daughters with an inheritance to which they are not entitled according to Torah law?

There are several approaches given to answer this question.

Some poskim rule that it is permitted to give away a large part of one’s estate, provided the testator makes certain that each of the heirs receives at least some inheritance (Tashbetz 3:147; Ketzos 282:2; see Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #151 who disagrees).

Others explain that one should provide inheritance for one’s daughters as a means of encouraging their shidduchim, attracting potential husbands by the expectation that they will eventually receive an inheritance (Shu”t Maharam Mintz #47, quoted by Nachalas Shiva 21:4:2).

Others contend that when the accepted practice is that all children inherit equally, one should follow this custom to make sure that a machlokes does not result from unrealized expectations (Gesher HaChaim, 1:8; cf. MiDor L’Dor pg. 31 who seems to disagree).

Gesher HaChaim records a story of a great talmid chacham who wanted his estate divided exactly as the Torah instructs. Thus, he arranged legally that his bechor should receive a double portion, and that only his sons should receive inheritance and not his daughters. Unfortunately, the result of this distribution was a legacy of machlokes that created a tremendous chillul Hashem. For this reason, Gesher HaChaim strongly recommends that a person divide his estate according to what is the expected norm in his community.

It is important to realize that legal rights and responsibilities are never governed by secular law. A Torah Jew realizes that Hashem’s Torah is all-encompassing, and that every aspect of one’s life is directed by Torah. Thus all financial aspects of our lives are also governed by halacha, and one should be careful to ask shaylos about one’s business dealings.