The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 7 July 2018 / 24 Tammuz 5778

The Laws of Inheritance

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
Library Library Library

“If a man dies without any sons, his inheritance passes over to his daughter…(Bamidbar, Parshat Pinchas 27:8) The order of inheritance is as follows: If a man dies, his possessions are divided among his sons, with the firstborn son receiving a double portion. If there aren't any sons, the estate passes over to his daughters…

Though the Torah clearly delineates precisely who inherits the possessions of a person who dies, one should not think that the intent of this commandment is that a person is enjoined by G-d to give his possessions over to his inheritors. That is not so, because G-d does not desire to limit a person’s control over his property, causing it to go to his inheritors. Instead, G-d allows a person to do as he pleases with his money while he is alive, even if doing so will cause his inheritors to lose out. Rather, the intent of the law of inheritance is that at the time of one’s passing from this world all of his possessions are transferred to his heirs. This legal transfer takes effect at the moment of death. Upon death, one’s property instantly and without delay becomes bound to the heirs.

In light of the above, some questions arise. What if a person wants his money and his other assets to be divided up differently than the Torah prescribes?

If a person says, “My son will not inherit me,” or, “My daughter will inherit me” (when he also has male children), his words are meaningless, since he has no power to uproot the laws of the Torah, which clearly state the opposite. This is true even though a person can do whatever he wishes with his money, because his control is effective only while he is alive. He can, therefore, give his possessions away to whomever he pleases, and he can even destroy them. But he cannot nullify the laws of inheritance, because that goes against the word of G-d, against His decrees.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka maintains that if someone makes a stipulation concerning a person who is qualified to inherit him, his words are valid. For example: If a person said “So-and-so, my son, shall inherit everything (even though he has other sons), or he said “So-and so, my daughter (when there are only daughters), shall inherit everything,” his words are valid. The law follows this opinion, except in the case where there is a bechor

  • Source: based on Sefer HaChinuch, Parshat Pinchas

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