Who gets the inheritance?

My Grandparents are doing their estate planning. They have two children, one of whom has two kids and the other four. They are having a hard time deciding if they should split assets evenly between the families or evenly between the individuals.

Evenly between the individuals would seem to favor one side of the family over another, evenly between the two families would favor the individuals of the smaller family and creates a disparity between their children. Is there any biblical guidance to help think through this situation?


Dear Austen,

You may have noticed that we often ask questions as part of our Ask the Rabbi answers. Here is our question for you: Have your grandparents asked for your input? If the answer is no, then we suggest that you read no further. Not much in life is as unwelcome as unsolicited advice.

However, if your grandparents had asked us this question, this is how we would have started our response.

  • Cain and Abel
  • Isaac and Ishmael
  • Jacob and Esau
  • Joseph and his brothers

Sadly, it is extremely common for inheritance issues to split families apart. No matter what the reasoning, in the emotional aftermath of losing parents money issues become inseparable from emotional ones. Dormant rivalries and hurt feelings that go back decades move front and center. So, we firmly advise that assets be split equally among children. The money one leaves is unimportant compared to the relationship between one’s children. (The Biblical mandate for the eldest to receive double is part of an entire structure of laws that pertain to very few people today.) Peace and love among their descendants are of utmost importance to your grandparents.

Having said that, your grandparents might very well choose, while they are alive, to set up a trust fund for each grandchild or set aside a gift for each one. Each of the six grandchildren would receive the same amount. While this may reduce the assets left to their children, it is an entirely different matter from leaving unequal assets.

We would strongly encourage your grandparents to leave a moral and ethical will (written or oral) for all their descendants. Money is transient, but letting you know their values, their dreams for your futures and the cornerstones of their lives is something that you can pass down to your children and grandchildren as well.

We wish you and your grandparents many healthy and happy years together,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

11 thoughts on “Who gets the inheritance?”

  1. Dear Rabbi:
    As a gentile who has been taught to believe in the God of Abraham, I have been taught that the Promises of blessings that God said were for all nations were/are my inheritance. I would appreciate some ancient Hebrew wisdom.
    Thank you.
    John Knight

  2. The lesson is timely for me, for the question of inheritance seems to be a curse that fell upon my family over many generations. The ancestor of my paternal grandmother departed his family and embarked westward, likely across Cumberland Gap into Indian territory in the early 19th century, to settle where one might spot upon arising a bear, a wolf or a threatening wild Indian. And why? It was owing to the cruel custom of primogeniture, whereby the eldest son received everything and the remainder of sons were cut off without a red cent. My ancestor was the eighth son, so he was left out in the cold. And he sought his fortune out west.

    Generations later, my Father returned home to find his siblings arguing over the estate of their recently deceased Father. His eldest brother insisted upon the same primogeniture, yet my Father made a good case to reward each sibling based on their investment in the homeplace, for he and several others had righteously contributed to their parents, whereas others had not. The stiff-necked domination of the eldest son to receive the entire estate caused my poor Father righteous indignation and he initiated explosive isolation from them ever since. It destroyed the intimacy he once felt with his family. It goes to show the sad desolation that money can cause in families. A similar event happened in the family of my wife. They all needed a Rabbi to advise that money is not but money, it is a SPIRITUAL COMMODITY beneath the watchful eye of God.

    1. What a sad story, James. Unfortunately, we’ve experienced trouble in our families as well because of inheritance. That’s why we encouraged Austen’s grandparents to keep family relationships at the core of whatever they do.

  3. Thank you for your comments Suzanne (and Rabbi DL). I agree that grandparents have an extraordinary influence on their grandchildren. You are right in saying: “The legacy of living a life of faith and obedience to God is incredibly powerful”. What a grandparent says appears to stick in the mind of a youngster, even if they said it only once.
    Thanks, m in V

  4. I believe Proverbs 13:22 can be attributed to spiritual, as well as monetary, inheritance. The legacy of living a life of faith and obedience to God is incredibly powerful, and for a grandchild to witness that strength up to the death of the grandparent can have a profound impact.

    As parents, we are focused on providing for, nurturing, and training our children, but a grandparent (one who is not tasked with raising the grandchildren) should be free to focus on each child in a different way, hopefully, to leave a positive impression of a life lived in devotion to God. Although my walk is different from my grandparents’, I am still grateful to have the example of their steadfastness in their faith as part of my heritage.

    When my grandmother died, my mother divided her inheritance between the five of us because of Proverbs 13:22, but she feels the double portion is not fair. It seems I’ve read somewhere that the firstborn male had the responsibility of making offerings or sacrifices for the family. Would that responsibility be why he was afforded a double portion, and the fact that we have no temple the reason it pertains to very few today?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Suzanne,
      As you note, the ideal is for grandparents to provide inspiration, example, and advice–when asked! The chief responsibility for raising children rests upon their parents and not upon the grandparents, the ‘village’ or the state.

  5. My mother chose to split her assets between each child and their spouse. One of the siblings had divorced his wife, but my mother had always liked her. So those of us who were married got equal shares, but the divorced sibling with the favored wife had to split his share with his ex.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Rich–
      Your mother, like anyone else in that position, has the right to gift their assets while they live as they choose and the right to bequeath them afterwards as they choose. As we wrote in this ATR (Ask The Rabbi) column, a key consideration is that the children should live in peace and family unity. This is of course very hard. Imagine a widow gifting much of her remaining assets over the course of her final few years to the one child who she feels is not managing. Perhaps in the eyes of her other children, she is really enabling this one child to avoid taking charge of their life. When she finally passes, her estate is far smaller than it had been since she’d been dipping into it in order to make gifts to this one child. The other siblings all resent this child who got far more than what they consider to be his/her fair share. How do you resolve this one?

  6. Dear Rabbi Lapin,

    I totally agree with your question to Austen; “Have your grandparents asked for your input?” If not, read no further.

    In my line of work I used to get grand parents in my office intending to transfer property to their grand children. My own inlaws took Proverbs 13:22; “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children”, to be an injunction for leaving part of their estate to my children.

    I never expressed my opinion to them though I believe it is the parent’s responsibility to look after the welfare of their children, not the grandparents, or the state for that matter. My inlaws, nor the state may have endorsed my parenting skills either. But God, in his wisdom, made me the parent to their grand children, not them or the state.

    By that same principle I trust God to give me the wisdom to settle my estate wisely before I die. I pray for my inlaws to live a long and happy life, but hope they won’t be around to oppose my last wishes, or for the state to agree with them.

    Proverbs 13:22 remains an enigma to me and I would welcome any light you might bring to bear on it.

    Kind regards,

    mark in Victoria

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Mark in Victoria–
      From the context and other clues from ancient Jewish wisdom it is clear that Proverbs 13:22 applies more to spiritual legacies rather than financial. In other words, grandparents are ideally to provide inspiration, wisdom, example, and, if asked, advice. Every time someone says, “My grandmother used to say….” or “My grandfather taught that verse this way…” Proverbs 13:22 is coming to life. Ideally, children learn how to relate to their parents by seeing how their parents relate to their grandparents. This is an ideal and increasingly rare in our troubled times. Firstly, since about 1960 people began raising families at ever older ages so life with grandparents was less likely. Second, with the spiritual turbulence of the past five decades, there are many couples today who do not wish to keep alive and pass down the values of their parents. But ideally…..well, you get the idea

  7. The Torah seems to express that leaving a legacy is to somehow ensure its survival for generations to come. In the case of Abel, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, there was evidence to support the legacy of Judaism would endure from among them.

    That is not to belittle the feelings of the others, of course, but many kingdoms had fallen because of unwise choice regarding successions. The kingdom of Israel fell victim to that.

    You can say that a family is a mini-kingdom in itself, maybe. If it is a kingdom or business to be inherited, then it would take more than just favoritism to ensures that the kingdom or business survives and thrives.

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