Q. If one child is not a credit to the family, is it proper to write him out of the will, or to leave him with a token inheritance?
A. In general, Jewish law strongly discourages disinheriting a wayward child. The great Talmudic sage Shmuel advised, “Don’t be among those who transfer their bequests, even from a bad son to a good one.” (1) Certainly money shouldn’t be given to anyone who will use it in a destructive or self-destructive way, but if the child is merely less than a credit to the family, it is usually best to treat him on an equal basis with the other children.
The Jerusalem Talmud (2) applies a cryptic verse from the prophet Ezekiel to someone who disinherits a child: “And these [who died in battle] shall not lie with the mighty . . . who descended to the depths with their weapons of war, their swords placed under the heads, and their iniquity shall be on their bones. . .” (Ezekiel 32:27.)
The commentators explain that a soldier who survived all his battles and went on to die a natural death used to have himself buried with his sword, to demonstrate that his sword never left him and he was never defeated in war. But the prophet implies that this is rather a hollow boast; after all, the victorious warrior is now interred in the same earth as those who were defeated! These “heroes” lack even the atonement from iniquity that was obtained by those who suffered in battle.
We can understand the analogy as follows: When a parent reacts to a child’s misbehavior by disinheriting him, it is like a declaration that he is getting even. He is being buried with his sword under his head, showing everyone that his child’s misbehavior didn’t get the best of him. The Talmud is telling us that it is unhealthy for the living as well as the dead if we use our departure from this world as an occasion to get even and settle petty accounts — with our own children, no less.
In most instances, the best policy is to set an example of equity and generosity. Our last message to our children, even those whose behavior is a disappointment, should be a positive one — giving the child a vote of confidence by showing our faith that after our departure he will know how to use our material as well as your spiritual inheritance in a constructive way.
(1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 133b.
(2) Jerusalem Talmud Bava Batra 8:6
Important note: The topic of Jewish inheritance and halakhically valid wills is very complex, and completely beyond the scope of this column. The above comments are limited to one specific topic: reducing a child’s entitlement in the estate solely because of his or her behavior.