Legal Ground: How to lose your entire inheritance

Even though a valid will leaves you a massive legacy?

Calculating taxes (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Calculating taxes
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Everyone knows that land disputes and inheritance cases can become combustible. And where land is concerned, everyone knew that Moses, who had come on aliya from France’s Alsace region in the 1930s and who was now in his 97th year, had accumulated desirable plots of land all over the country. Some of them were in the center of Tel Aviv and were worth untold sums to the right developer.
But as Moses grew older and was widowed, his children became more and more estranged. His two sons, Avner and Yossi, seeking their own fortune, went to live in Germany, leaving behind their ailing father and maintaining rather lukewarm contact with him over the years.
Moses, particularly after his wife died, felt neglected and abandoned.
In truth, no one cared, with the exception of Rivka, his next-door neighbor, a good-hearted haredi lady with a large family who stepped into the breach and helped Moses through the final difficult years of his life.
As was clearly pointed out by the court in the ensuing legal battle over Moses’s assets, Rivka had no ulterior motive in helping Moses other than that she saw it as her duty to help this lonely old man. The court determined after hearing the evidence that she had no idea Moses was wealthy, as he and his late wife had lived in the same old apartment they bought right after they had gotten married when they were impoverished olim.
After he died, Moses’s lawyer called the two sons in Germany.
“There is a will,” he said.
This was the first of the rude surprises Avner and Yossi were to receive. If there had been no will, the sons would automatically inherit the entire estate, with each getting a half share under the rules of the 1965 Inheritance Act.
But now, arriving in Israel, they found themselves in the lawyer’s office with Rivka, who had also been invited by the lawyer to attend. Their surprise turned into fury when it transpired that Moses, in his deep gratitude to Rivka, had left her half his assets, including one of the central Tel Aviv plots of land. The remaining half was left to Avner and Yossi in equal shares.
Even before the lawyer had finished reading the will, they stormed out. “We will contest this in the courts and invalidate the will,” they shouted at the lawyer and the stunned Rivka.
But Moses was a wily businessman who had a profound understanding of human nature. Thus he inserted into his will, no doubt in consultation with his lawyer, a very little-used “no contest” clause.
A “no contest” refers to a clause in a will that threatens to disinherit a beneficiary of the will if that beneficiary challenges the terms of the will in court.
But challenge they did, and they did not pull any punches either. Firstly, they said in the court papers, Rivka was a “gold digger” and, using her “influence” over the “needy” deceased, “got him to write the will in her favor. This was undue influence, which if proven, would invalidate the will. Furthermore, apart from the claim of undue influence, the sons said Moses was so unwell at the time of the writing of the will that he was totally incompetent and had no real understanding of what he was doing.
Rivka, somewhat bemused, hired a lawyer who pointed out that she had no idea Moses had even written a will in her favor. And not only was he fully competent, Moses was also physically well enough to take a cab and go to his lawyer and draw up the very will that the boys were contesting.
Moses’s lawyer testified that Moses had come to his office and waited while the will was drawn up. Moses read the will, made corrections and then signed it, with the lawyer and his secretary serving as witnesses.
Moses had also told the lawyer he was deeply grateful to Rivka and her family. He said her commitment to doing hessed was in stark contrast to his children, who were hardly ever in touch and were, as he said wryly, just “hanging about waiting for him to die and pick up the estate.” Nevertheless, he did give them half of his assists.
The gerontologists who took care of Moses testified that he was “sharp as a razor.”
That put paid to the sons’ claim that he was incompetent.
But now the court turned its attention to the “no contest” clause, and the immediate question arose as to whether the sons had lost their share of the inheritance by challenging the will.
It was their lawyer’s opinion that it would be against public policy to uphold such a clause. They had little to worry about, he told them.
Was he right? Read next week’s column for the unexpected court decision.
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Dr. Haim Katz is senior partner in a law firm based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Sam Katz is also a partner in the same firm. Both have written books on inheritance law, family law and real estate and are active in general civil litigation.