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The Jewish Ethicist: Supporting Dad

The Jewish Ethicist: Supporting Dad

My father has a very low income, but owns a very large house. And he's disinheriting me. Am I obligated to support him?


Q. My father has a very low income, so I send him money each month even though it is a hardship for me. But he lives in a very valuable house – is he really poor? Also, he has announced his decision to leave his entire estate to his wife (not my mother), so in a way I feel like I am supporting a stranger.

A. It is certainly regrettable that your father intends to disinherit his children. The mishna states: "One who leaves his assets to someone and forsakes his children – what he did has legal force, but the Sages don't approve of him." (1)

The expression "forsake his children" allows for the possibility that the parent may want to leave some assets to friends, charity etc., but the expectation is that the bulk of the estate should be left to the children. The expressions "the Sages don't approve" is a common one in the Talmud; it expresses a high degree of disapproval. The continuation of the passage makes it clear that even if some of the children don't meet the parent's expectations – it says that the estate shouldn't even be passed "from a bad child to a good child".

But just as parents shouldn't ignore their obligations to their children because they may disapprove of their actions, so children can't ignore their obligations to their parents because of such disapproval. In Jewish law, children don't have a per se obligation to support their parents, but if the parent is poor and eligible for charity, the child is expected to be first in line in helping out, and the parent should be the first and primary charity recipient.

The Shulchan Arukh (comprehensive Code of Jewish law) rules in this context:

The obligation of the child to feed the parent [as a fulfillment of honoring the parent] is at the parent's expense. But if the parent is lacking, the child is compelled to provide for the parent. (2)

So your father's lack of thoughtfulness regarding his will is not a good enough justification to stop providing for his needs.

The fact that he owns a house is a more complex situation. On the one hand, a house is a very valuable asset; a homeowner is typically worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars and it seems strange to define that as "poor". In fact, if your father was truly impoverished his will would not be of interest. On the other hand, Jewish law does not require a person to be homeless in order to be considered poor, and in general a person is not obligated to sell his house in order to be eligible for charity. The mishna gives the criteria for charity eligibility as follows:

One who has two hundred zuz is [considered poor and therefore] allowed to take leket, shikhcha and peah and the poor tithe [various kinds of agricultural leavings for the poor].  . . We do not require him to sell his house or personal effects. (3)

On the other hand, it may be possible for your father to support himself from the value of the house without becoming homeless. For example, many people in your father's situation take out a "reverse mortgage", a kind of annuity in which the homeowner gets a fixed payment each month for life in return for surrendering the home to the insurer at death. If he is able to make such an arrangement he would be considered someone who is capable of supporting himself, not one who needs to accept charity even from his son.

It is worth examining the option of a second mortgage for your father, to see if it could provide him with needed income. If he finds that this arrangement suits his needs, you will have solved the problem of the ongoing strain on your income. But take into account that it will not solve the problem of the estate, because under this arrangement there will be no estate since the house will have been signed over to the lender.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 133b. (2)  Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 240, see also 251:3-4. (3) Mishna Peah 8:8

November 28, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) gabriel, June 11, 2012 9:06 PM

I don't get it

I don't get it. The son doesn't want to give money to his father and he is obligated. But if he is not in condition to give tzedakah, then he is exempeted from supporting his father. If he has ti give tzedakah, then at best he could choose not to give him, but never to keep the money. When did the obligation of giving tzedakah became dependant on the father's situation?

(10) Tmay, December 21, 2010 8:01 AM

One suggestion: The man is worried about his wife. The man has a son. Therefore the man could give his wife a life estate which property passes to his son when the wife dies. The father is trying to send the message that he loves his wife and wants her taken care of. The son has to wait longer but he still gets the property. Sometimes it is better for a person to be older when he inherits property as he is less likely to do something stupid with it.

(9) roger, December 21, 2010 8:00 AM

You might also suggest to your correspondent that instead of outright gifts to the father, that the son make the payments in return for a promise to be repaid from the sale of the house -- in effect a lien on the house. This way the dad would get the cash, and the son would not feel so ill-used.

(8) Miriam, December 14, 2010 8:57 AM

"disinheriting" not the right term

I'm not so sure it's "disinheriting" the son, so much as providing properly for the wife, which is the father's obligation. In Jewish law a surviving wife retains the right to live in the home, but the children retain long-term ownership. Someone else writes that in their family's case "My father left everything to his wife (not my mother). When she dies, his estate is to be split between his children and hers." Leaving everything to the surviving wife is a legal risk - once it's given to her it's no longer "his estate" and she can write her will however she wants.

(7) Kasey Dee, December 2, 2010 11:55 AM

Why shouldn't his money go to his wife?

The most important inheritance my father gave his children is a good upbringing and the ability to stand on our own two feet. My father left everything to his wife (not my mother). When she dies, his estate is to be split between his children and hers. One could argue that whatever is left should come to his children not hers but the more important point is, she married him and he needed to provide for her after his death. In my mind, that was his first obligation.

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