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FAMILY INHERITANCE DISPUTE

By: Rabbi Max Sutton



THE CASE

Jack and his two older sisters lost their parents over two years ago. Thereafter, the three signed documentation consistent with civil inheritance law, which divided their parents’ estate into three equal parts.  The documentation signed included a provision that required them to abide by the ruling of our Bet Din in the event of a dispute between them. The estate’s primary asset was their parents’ residential property. During their parents’ lifetime, their father, a rabbi, transformed the garage behind the home into a private synagogue. The synagogue, still active, is operated by Jack, and regularly services the local neighbors. Jack’s eldest sister is presently claiming that the entire property is to be sold, including the garage, which serves as a private synagogue. In Bet Din she explained that since the garage was their father’s private property and does not belong to the public, it is included in her rightful share of the estate. Jack and his other sister refuse to sell the garage since it is a semi-established public synagogue. They as well wish to perpetuate their father’s legacy and maintain the synagogue.

Is Jack’s older sister entitled to a third of the garage behind the house or must it stay as a synagogue? How should the Bet Din rule and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, the status of private quarters used as a public synagogue is a legal matter of intricacy.

Leading halachic authorities distinguish between a temporary synagogue in which the actual sanctuary was used both as a private home and for public prayers and that of a synagogue of permanent use. In the former instance a homeowner can perhaps terminate the synagogue function and reclaim his home solely for his private use. After all, from the onset, his intent was only for a temporary makeshift synagogue.

If, however, an area on private property is designated solely for public prayers, its status is clearly that of a synagogue. Since the area was designated as a permanent place of public worship, the sanctity of the designated area must be preserved just as it would be for any other synagogue. Obviously, the intent of a homeowner plays a vital role when determining whether a synagogue is of permanent sanctity. Nevertheless, in the absence of the testimony of a homeowner, a Bet Din will investigate other factors that indicate the homeowner’s intent. Synagogue plaques, furniture, and testimony of the regular congregants can serve as an indication to the original intent and subsequent status of a synagogue’s permanent sanctity.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, in the absence of a halachic will the rightful heirs of an estate are the sons of the deceased and not his daughters. Upon inheritance, a son is entitled to gift a female sibling a percentage of the estate, or gift anyone else of his choice. Nevertheless, if in the interim, prior to gifting another party, a son designates part of the estate as a place of worship, he can no longer effectively gift that portion to another. The status of the designated portion is sanctified for public worship and cannot be gifted. Hence, if the son declares that prior to gifting his female sibling a percentage, he sanctified a portion of the estate, that portion is not included in the allocation of the inherited property.

A Bet Din will investigate before determining that the son indeed designated the property as a synagogue prior to gifting his female sibling. As aforementioned, synagogue plaques, new furniture, and testimony of regular congregants can serve as an indication as to when the son dedicated the property of mention for public worship.

Furthermore, even if no clear evidence is provided to attest that either the father or the son dedicated the property as a permanent house of worship, nevertheless, the property may not be allocated for private use. This is because the documentation signed between the siblings entrusted our Bet Din to resolve all matters of dispute. In the absence of clear evidence, we as a Bet Din are halachically unable to submit a decision which would possibly violate the sanctity of a synagogue.

VERDICT An Eternal Light

Our Bet Din ruled in favor of Jack by restricting the sale of the garage. Hence, Jack and his two sisters are only entitled to equal shares of their father’s home and are required to maintain the status of the garage as a synagogue. As explained in Torah law, even if their father did not designate the garage as a permanent synagogue, nevertheless, since a will was not written, Jack was the sole heir of his father’s estate. Upon inquiry, our Bet Din disclosed that although Jack indeed transferred to his sisters an equal share of the property, this was done only six months after his father’s passing. During that six-month interim Jack dedicated an eternal light to the synagogue with an inscription in memory of his father’s name. Likewise, Jack spoke at the synagogue thirty days after his father’s passing, and throughout the eulogy he reiterated to the congregants present that the synagogue serves as a testimony to his father’s legacy. It was therefore apparent to our Bet Din that prior to the transfer of ownership to his sisters, Jack, while still the sole owner, effectively dedicated the synagogue as a permanent sanctuary for prayer. Furthermore, even without concrete evidence attesting to the permanent status of the sanctuary, our Bet Din was unwilling to even possibly violate the sanctity of an active synagogue by enabling its sale to a private owner.