July 25, 2024
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Halachic and Moral Considerations of Planning Your Estate

Published with the permission of koltorah.org

 

The Forgotten Halacha

There is one fundamental reason we must observe each of the mitzvot, and that is because God commanded us to do so. God gave the Torah at Har Sinai to teach us how to live our lives through observance of the mitzvot. This, then, is the basic creed of Judaism: that every mitzvah should be observed. How many of us have observed the Halachot pertaining to Yerusha?

According to almost all poskim (to be explored in depth in a later article), if one fails to draft a secular will and take affirmative steps to assure that his estate plan conforms to the Halachic requirements for Yerusha (which typically entails the execution of a Shtar Chov), he violates Halacha by his inaction. If he has addressed this, but violated the spirit of the many Torah values governing his actions, has he really complied?

 

Acknowledgement in God’s Sovereignty

The Halachot of Yerusha are not addressed merely by drafting a will in accordance with Halacha (which will be explored in later issues of Kol Torah). The issues are much more profound. The Gemara on Rosh Hashanah 16a states that Hashem said concerning Rosh Hashanah: that we should recite pesukim that speak of sovereignty before God. Acknowledging the sovereignty of God over all of our worldly possessions, and over the world itself, is one of the themes of Rosh Hashanah.

In addition to this theme of Rosh Hashanah, many Halachot remind us of God’s sovereignty over material possessions. Shemitah, Yovel, Shabbat and Yerusha all serve to remind us of the fact that there is but one owner of all property, God. The Halachot of Yerusha, on one level, remind us that all of our worldly possessions, the results of a lifetime of toil, are not ours to give away in any fashion we wish. While the rabbis have developed mechanisms to assure flexibility in controlling how we bequeath assets, even those steps themselves remind us of God as the ultimate owner of all material wealth (see Sefer Hachinuch 400). During this introspective time we should have all endeavored to obtain perspective as to the real meaning of wealth.

This theme is further echoed in one of the prayers which is part of the motif of the Yamim Noraim, Avinu Malkeinu. This includes a petition to inscribe us in the book of sustenance and support. Many even add a supplemental prayer following this verse asking for material success. But this is a prayer intended to request sustenance to enable us to pursue the service of Hashem, not to be preoccupied with material needs. Estate planning is not merely about the transmission of wealth, it is about the transmission of values and a way of life.

 

Community Responsibility

In tefilah during the Aseret Yemai Teshuva we say “inscribe us in the book of life.” During Rosh Hashanah, we pray both individually and as a community. We were hopefully judged, both individually and as a community, for a good year. Our responsibility to the community can take so many forms, tzedakah being a common one. The Chofetz Chaim encouraged people to make large charitable gifts in their wills (Ahavat Chesed 3:4). Throughout the country on Rosh Hashanah, Orthodox rabbis were asked to speak of the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee program, “The Five Percent Mandate.” This program seeks to have everyone commit 5 % of their estate to fund Jewish education, the key to our future as a people. There are countless ways to address the fundamental Jewish value of charitable giving as part of one’s estate plan. It can also be done in a manner that sets an example for your children as to the importance of charitable giving. Many charitable techniques raise yet further Halachic issues, such as ribbit (interest), that must be addressed.

 

Preserving Shalom

The Halachot of Yerusha include a subtle, and in many ways profound, lesson. Yerusha is structured so that family members must not permit rivalries or animosities to interfere with their obligations and family relationships. For example, a parent should not permit favoritism of one child over another to influence his following Torah law, nor his behavior toward his children. Chazal caution us against giving even the smallest degree of advantage to one child over the others to avoid causing jealousy (Tur and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 282; Bava Batra 133b).

 

The Kittel

On Yom Kippur, we stood before Hashem in wearing a white kittel. A kittel is similar to that which will one day be our last garment. The somber tone that this minhag creates hopefully helped each of us to understand the seriousness of the day at hand, and the heartfelt teshuva we strived to achieve. Donning a kittel, while being conscious of its implications, was not an easy task emotionally. These are the same difficult emotions involved in addressing the life and death issues of a living will, the instruction letter to our executor as to the care of our children, and estate planning generally. Addressing these issues is vital to minimizing the emotional difficulties one’s family will face if, God forbid, he suffers a traumatic accident or illness.

 

Responsibility

Each of us has responsibilities to parents, children, spouse and others. If we do not take affirmative steps to meet those obligations through providing for the financial well being of our loved ones and minimizing their trauma in the event we experience an emergency, they will suffer. We will have also violated our Torah obligations as children, parents and spouses. If each of us does not undertake some measure of responsibility to support the charities and institutions our communities rely upon, what will the future hold?

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