Max Feinberg, a dentist from Chicago, died in 1986. His wife Erla took over his estate and she died in 2003. After that, their five grandchildren stood to inherit at least $250,000 apiece.
There was only one catch (PDF). According to Max’s will:
… any such descendant who married outside the Jewish faith or whose non-Jewish spouse did not convert to Judaism within one year of marriage would be “deemed deceased for all purposes of this instrument as of the date of such marriage” and that descendant’s share of the trust would revert to [Max's two children] Michael or Leila.
In other words, Feinberg specified in his will that the grandchildren would only receive the money if they married a Jewish person, essentially to carry on his own heritage and faith — Marry a gentile and you’re cut from the will. (If the grandchildren were “deceased” or married to a non-Jew, Max’s children would split that share of the money.)
One of the dis-inherited grandchildren filed a lawsuit. Lower courts sided with her. It made sense because of all the theoretical problems — for example, would the will encourage a grandchild to marry a Jew, get the inheritance money, then get divorced the next day and marry someone else?
The case made it to the Illinois Supreme Court. That court had to decide whether or not it was legal to allow wills to “base inheritance on someone’s marriage and religion.”
On Thursday, the court issued its ruling:
The will was acceptable. Max could say that his beneficiaries would only receive their share of the inheritance if they followed his personal wishes about their religious beliefs.
The state Supreme Court based much of its decision on the fact that [now deceased wife] Erla Feinberg’s will awarded set amounts of money based on the marriage status of the grandchildren at the time of her 2003 death — either they qualified for the money or they didn’t. The court said that meant the will didn’t try to control what the grandchildren would do in the future and didn’t offer any incentive for a particular couple to divorce.
A will that provided money year after year if the heir did not marry a gentile might not pass muster, the court suggested. That’s because it would amount to a dead man trying to control actions for years to come and would encourage divorces so that people could claim an inheritance.
The court said in the ruling (PDF):
There is no question that a grandparent in Max’s situation is entirely free during his lifetime to attempt to influence his grandchildren to marry within his family’s religious tradition, even by offering financial incentives to do so. The question is, given our public policy of testamentary freedom, did Max’s beneficiary restriction clause as given effect by Erla’s appointment violate any other public policy of the state of Illinois, thus rendering it void?
Their answer was no, it did not. In fact, they sided with Max in large part because all the hypotheticals were eliminated. The money would be awarded, they said, based on the status of the grandchildren in 2003, the day that his wife Erla died — “either they qualified for the money or they didn’t.”
The court said that meant the will didn’t try to control what the grandchildren would do in the future and didn’t offer any incentive for a particular couple to divorce.
So, did they get the decision right?
Lawyer and atheist activist Rob Sherman says they did:
The disgruntled granddaughter doesn’t seem to understand that it’s Grandpa’s and Grandma’s money, to do with as they please. They didn’t owe her a cent.
Max and Erla could have given all of their money to their children, instead of to the grandchildren. They could have given all of their money to charity, leaving nothing to family.
What the granddaughter doesn’t seem to understand is that the executor of the estate is required to act in the same way that the deceased would have acted if the deceased were still alive to distribute the money himself.
It was Max and Erla’s money. They could have given their own money to anybody they wanted to. It’s their money, to do with as they please. If granddaughter doesn’t like it, too bad. It’s not her money.
Steven Resnicoff, co-director of the DePaul College of Law’s Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies, hailed the court decision as consistent with Illinois public policy.
“It’s not just a Jewish clause. It’s a Catholic clause. It’s a Muslim clause,” Resnicoff said. “It’s not uncommon that people want to encourage children to follow in their footsteps.
“Today’s decision emphasizes the principle that, with some exceptions, a person is free to allocate his or her assets as the person sees fit.”
(via Religion Clause)