Should I split my estate equally between my children?

December 1, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

Question: I am an elderly widow with children. I have been thinking of revising my will to give a larger share to one child who has done more to care for me and is less well-off than her siblings. But I am worried this could lead to resentment in the family after my death. What should I do?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Jewish inheritance law is a very complicated area particularly when it intersects with secular law. According to halachah, if the deceased left sons, the daughters do not inherent from the estate. The inheritance is divided up equally among the male heirs (with the exception of the eldest brother, who receives a double portion if he is inheriting from his father) and they in turn must provide support and maintenance for their unmarried sisters.

For argument’s sake, I will assume that you have both sons and daughters and so the question — from a halachic point of view — is not if you can give one daughter a larger inheritance than your other children but rather how you can leave her any inheritance at all?

Fortunately, Jews have grappled with this problem for ages and the rabbis have devised some useful methods for enabling a parent to bequeath an inheritance to all children, regardless of gender. (The same method also gets around the rule of primogeniture, which would give the firstborn son a double portion.)

The Bible’s strict hierarchical inheritance rules apply only to money bequeathed from the estate after the death of the parent — which is what inheritance is. If, however, the parent decided to gift money to his/her children during his/her lifetime (even if shortly before death), that money would not be subject to the Torah’s laws on inheritance. In such a case, a parent can gift equal amounts to all his/her children, regardless of order of birth and gender.

Another method would be for the parent to write a note of indemnity obligating his/her estate to pay a considerable sum to his/her daughter(s)), effective a moment before death, with a proviso that if the sons give an equal share of the inheritance to their sisters, then the debt is null and void. This incentivises the sons to pay the more modest equal share rather than incur the much larger debt which they would have to pay from their parent’s estate.

Putting all the legalities aside, the question is how wise is it to favour one child in the way you are considering doing for your daughter? I don’t think it is wise at all.
Unless you have the most exceptionally sensitive and generous children, it is bound to cause trouble. I have seen it happen too many times. Even Jacob thought he could get away with favouring Joseph and we all know where that led.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

You are to be congratulated on two counts: first, in having a will; secondly on updating it. It is astonishing how many people fail to do both of these, either out of lethargy, or because they fear that making a will somehow brings death closer. The result is that the deceased leaves a legacy of feuds as the family argues over unallocated assets or changed circumstances.

In your case, your intention seems eminently sensible: why give as much money to children who already have plenty as to one that does not? Fairness does not necessarily mean equity. So there is no obligation to split your estate into portions of the same size.
You rightly raise the problem of possible resentments by the siblings, so what is crucial here (and also for many other people making decisions they fear might be misconstrued) is to discuss the issues with your children before you finalise them with solicitors.

This is probably best done on a one-to-one basis, so that you can gauge reactions and respond to their individual perspectives. The key element is to bridge any gap between what you intend and what they understand by your decisions.

For instance, you are thinking of their varying financial circumstances, but they might perceive it as meaning you love one more than the others, and be much more hurt by that implication than by the lesser sum they receive. This could be reinforced by the fact that you intend giving a greater amount to the one who has cared for you more, which could be due to time and geography rather than a better relationship.

You may also discover from these conversations that the wealthier siblings would appreciate certain items (a painting or vase) that may not be worth much, but hold sentimental value, and which would make them feel equally appreciated by you.

Discuss matters with the less well-off child too, so that she understands your thinking, and is aware that her siblings know in advance; there is also the possibility that she may not wish to be favoured. You might like to include non-financial matters in your will, such as the morals and goals that have motivated you in your life, or the values and priorities you hope your children will take to heart. This would be in line with the Jewish tradition of ethical wills, handing on not only assets but also guidance.

    Last updated: 10:45am, December 1 2013