Shabbat Parashat Va'eira| 5767
Beit Din’s Authority to Rule on Inheritance in the Absence of Missing Relatives - Based on Piskei Din Rabbaniim - vol. XII, pp. 375-377
Case: A Holocaust survivor who never married died some 40 years after the Holocaust and left an inheritance without a will. Her cousins from one family want beit din to rule that they are the sole inheritors. They claim that no one other cousins on either side survived the Holocaust. However, a representative of the government raises the point that they do not have proof that there are no additional cousins, as there were known to be before the Holocaust. Israeli law states that only if all relatives agree that beit din should adjudicate matters of inheritance do they assume jurisdiction. Therefore, beit din’s jurisdiction has been put in question.
Ruling: Beit din has evidence that the deceased left no first-degree relatives. No evidence was presented to beit din that there are other relatives who deserve to inherit. To the contrary, there was testimony that the deceased told people that besides the known cousins who petitioned the court, she had no surviving relatives.
After the Holocaust, most survivors made it to Israel or to other “free” countries. In almost all cases, relatives looked for surviving relatives and were, whether on their own or with the help of organizations, able to locate each other. Even those who were caught “behind the Iron Curtain” were usually able to contact relatives by letter. The fact that almost 40 years later, relatives of the deceased were not found is sufficient evidence, in this context, that they do not exist.
It is illogical to demand of the known relatives to produce evidence of the death of others when it is clear that they are incapable of doing so. In fact, the Supreme Court was lenient about the level of proof needed regarding deceased relatives when knowledge of their whereabouts was lost during the time of World War II. In this case, the relatives were required to pay for newspaper ads looking for unknown relatives of the deceased. They complied, and that is sufficient.
Therefore, beit din has jurisdiction to rule on the matter. Beit din will render an appropriate ruling after all of the known cousins, who have already signed the document of arbitration, appear before it.
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