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Shabbat Parashat Vaetchanan 5775

P'ninat Mishpat: Adding Relatives to Recipients of Posthumous Tzedaka Fund

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 49)

Case: Reuven, a rich man on his deathbed, had a will made, which included creating a tzedaka fund. Afterward, his brother-in-law Shimon reminded him that some of his relatives are poor, especially one of Reuven’s brothers. Shimon wrote down, with permission, sums of money to be put aside for these relatives from the tzedaka funds (four gold coins a week), and that if this is not enough money for his brother, two gold coins should be added for him. Reuven did not sign the will, but his wife and oldest son did, followed by two witnesses, who confirmed the former signatures and orally heard the wife and son’s confirmation of Reuven’s addendum to the will. Shimon held on to the addendum for three years without telling the brother, at which time the brother found out. When he asked the widow and orphans for back money, they said that the addendum is not binding because all the information came from them, and they were so distraught at Reuven’s illness that they agreed to things without understanding what was going on.


Ruling: The claim that the wife and son did not know what was going on is not accepted, since they signed and admitted the correctness of the addendum before witnesses. Their claim is no better than the claim that one did not understand the language of the document they authorized, which is not admissible (see Shulchan Aruch, CM 61:13).

Yet it seems to me that they are exempt for a different reason. Regarding the money that is to be taken from the tzedaka fund, once the money was set aside, money can only be diverted from it for other purposes if the mortally ill person backs out of the gift. That would have required Reuven to go through such a procedure in front of kosher witnesses. In this case, the direct witnesses (wife, son) are relatives of Reuven, and they are invalid to testify against the tzedaka fund. 

Regarding the provision that if the set amount is not enough, then more will be added, the language implies that this is to be taken from the family, not the tzedaka fund. Thus, perhaps the family admitted that they are obligated in this amount from the estate to the brother and are obligated to give back pay. However, the signatories are only the widow and one son, while the inheritors include four sons. Therefore, only the son who is signed obligated himself by means of his admission and has to pay one fourth of the amount that is ostensibly coming to the brother.

On the other hand, there are also difficulties with the language of the document. Since the other brothers have since grown up, we entered into an effort to come to a compromise between the inheritors and their poor uncle. The uncle agreed to drop the retroactive payments, and instead the estate will pay him four gold coins weekly.

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