Drafting a will that adheres to both civil and Jewish law might seem like a task better pushed off than tackled head on. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: knowing that you have arrangements in place which legally formalize your wishes for death, burial, and inheritance according to Jewish law is the greatest gift you can give, since it assures both you and your nearest and dearest peace of mind. Our goal in this article is therefore just that simple: to make the process of will-writing less daunting and more empowering.
Guide on How to Write a Will with Confidence
In Jewish tradition, legacy planning is associated not with death, but rather with an extended lease on life: our Sages teach us that making arrangements for one’s inevitable day of death unlock the blessing of longevity. Why? Perhaps because thinking about – and preparing for – the moment of departure from this world helps us re-orient and refocus ourselves.
From the perspective of Judaism, life is not an aimless path, but rather a journey and mission imbued with direction, meaning, and purpose. Thinking about the moment when life ceases to be forcibly reminds us that living is all about giving; giving, in turn, helps us connect with the boundless beneficence of G-d that is in turn existence’s life force.
At first glance, writing a will may feel less like a spiritual experience and more like a thankless chore governed by necessity. Second thought, though, reveals otherwise. Writing a will that adheres to both civil and Jewish law is a powerful reminder that where you are, what you have, and what you accomplish can (literally) give you and posterity the future. Spelling out your wishes is also the greatest gift you can give to your executors: it allows them the comfort of knowing that they are fulfilling your requests even after separation.
Will Writing 101: Putting the Document in Order
To simplify your journey of writing a will, we’ve created a sample template that meets both civil and Jewish legal standards. This “how to make a will” template is intended to guide you in organizing your thoughts and clearly conveying your wishes for the future.
While this article will present a template for a standard legal Jewish will, there are two very important add-ons to this template which are important to know about, and all three – whether separate from each other or together – are commonly referred to as a “Jewish will”:
- A legal will (and the subject of this article) whose directions conforms to halachic laws governing inheritance
- An advance health directive (also referred to as a halachic living will, usually put as an addendum to a will), which gives precise instructions about what kinds of medical procedures and funeral rituals should – or should not – be applied at the end of one’s life.
- An ethical will (which is not actually a legal document, but is sometimes stored with a civil will), that imparts your life lessons and wishes that you’d like to convey for posterity.
Needless to say, the starting point for all Jewish will writing is the civil will that, when written in a way which conforms to Judaic practice, becomes a binding “Jewish will”.
The most important take-away point about a Jewish-civil will, though, is that it is crucial to consult with a legal professional and a knowledgeable rabbi. They will help you customize your will according to your specific circumstances and verify its compliance with the laws of your jurisdiction.
Components of a Civil Will: An All-in-One Checklist
The checklist that follows lists all items you’ll need in place in order to draft a will that meets legal standards. However, as we’ll see, it is important to add and adjust specific details when writing a will that meets standards of Jewish law as well.
- Confirm eligibility: Ensure you meet the minimum age requirement (usually 18) and that you are of sound mind, which means you understand the nature and extent of your property, as well as the implications of creating a will.
- Choose your beneficiaries: Clearly identify the individuals or organizations you wish to inherit your assets. Be prepared with their full names, addresses, and their relationship to you.
- Select an executor: Choose a trusted person to oversee the administration of your estate and ensure your wishes are carried out. Include their full name, address, and relationship to you.
- Appoint a guardian: If you have minor children, select a guardian to care for them in the event of your death. Provide the guardian’s full name, address, and relationship to you.
- Allocate your assets: Detail how you want your estate to be distributed among your beneficiaries. Be specific about assets such as real estate, bank accounts, investments, and personal property.
- Sign and date the will: The testator (the person making the will) should sign and date the will in the presence of two witnesses. The witnesses (and their spouses) should not be beneficiaries of the will, and should also sign and date the will in the presence of the testator and each other. They should include their full names, addresses, and occupations.
- Have a safe place to store the will: Designate a safe and secure place to keep your will, such as a fireproof safe or a safety deposit box. Inform your executor and/or trusted family members where the will will be stored.
You can regularly review your will, especially after significant life events (e.g., marriage, divorce, births, deaths, or changes in financial circumstances), and make any necessary updates to ensure it remains valid and reflects your current wishes.
Please remember that the specific requirements for creating a valid will vary by jurisdiction, and this guidance may not cover all necessary steps or considerations. Not for nothing is an entire area of law devoted to will writing and testaments, and so this article represents a simplified version of many of the important factors which you should keep in mind as you embark on this task. It is therefore crucial to consult with a legal professional for advice tailored to your situation.
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With a charitable bequest to Rabbi Meir Baal Haness tzedakah in your will, you set us up as your
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Making it Jewish: How to Make Your Civil Will a Jewish Will
While a Jewish will follows many of the same legal requirements as a secular will, there are obviously additional religious considerations to keep in mind. When selecting a lawyer to write up this kind of Jewish will, look for one who has experience with crafting legal wills that also were approved by a knowledgeable Orthodox rabbi.
While a Jewish will generally follows the same legal requirements as a secular will, there are a few additional religious considerations that should be taken into account and can make all the difference:
- Incorporate Jewish law (Halacha): A Jewish will should include a clause stating that your will should be interpreted and administered according to Jewish law. There are actually a number of Jewish law courts which provide examples of how to write a will; some also include a “how to write a will sample” in a downloadable version. You can simply reference one of those rabbinic law courts, and direct that your will be interpreted in line with their guidance, or you can appoint a rabbi whom you know personally to direct your executors about questions that may come up. Regardless of whatever template you follow for writing your will, including such a provision ensures that the will aligns with the religious beliefs and values of the testator.
- Appoint an executor knowledgeable in Jewish law and customs: For your civil will, choose an executor who is knowledgeable in Jewish law and customs, as they will be responsible for overseeing the administration of your estate while also ensuring that your religious wishes/directives are carried out. This person should be familiar with halachic inheritance principles and other relevant Jewish laws.
- Donate to charity (Tzedakah): Incorporate the Jewish value of tzedakah (charity) into your will by allocating a portion of your estate as a charitable bequest to charitable causes or organizations. This can include donating to your synagogue, Jewish schools, or other organizations that align with your beliefs and values. Charitable giving, as part of legacy planning, in fact, dates back to the time of the Talmud. However, Jewish law mandates that a person should always first allocate money to blood relatives, regardless of need. Consult with a rabbi about the proportion or sum that is appropriate to donate to charity.
- Conform to halachic inheritance principles: Jewish law has specific guidelines for the distribution of an estate among family members, which might differ from secular inheritance laws. Consult with a rabbi to ensure that your actual civil will adheres to these Jewish principles, especially if you have specific religious concerns. Sometimes, the terminology used when writing a will makes all the difference; for example, to even out the balance between siblings when one child may be legally entitled to a lesser inheritance than a firstborn, using the language of ‘gifting’ (versus bequeathing), is a Halachically-acceptable workaround that can be used.
An Easy-to-Follow Sample Jewish Will
This is a general template for a simple will which complies with civil and Jewish law. Keep in mind that this may not cover all necessary provisions or be suitable for your specific situation. Laws regarding wills vary by jurisdiction, so it’s crucial to consult with a legal professional to ensure your will complies with the laws of your area and accurately reflects your wishes.
LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT of [YOUR NAME]
I, [YOUR NAME], now residing in the State of [STATE NAME], being of sound mind and body, do hereby make, publish and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament, hereby revoking all former Wills and Codicils at any time heretofore made by me.
FIRST. I give, devise and bequeath to REBBE MEIR BAAL HANES CHARITIES KOLLEL AHAVAS YISROEL VYERUSHALAIM having a tax ID# 11-3471447, the sum of $ ______ (or [x]% shares of _________ stock) (or the real property located at _____________________) to be used for its general support.
SECOND. I hereby nominate, constitute and appoint __________________, as Executor of this my Last Will and Testament.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I sign, publish and declare this as my Last Will and Testament, in the presence of the persons witnessing it at my request this day of, [Month Date, Year].
The foregoing instrument was at said date subscribed, published and declared by said Testator as his Last Will and Testament, in our presence, and we, at his request, in his presence and in the presence of each other, subscribed our names as witnesses on the day and in the year last above written (the final sentence of the Will, beginning with the words “IN WITNESS WHEREOF”, having been read aloud to us by the Testator immediately after he had signed the Will), all of us, including the Testator, being present throughout the execution and attestation of the Will.
_________________________________ residing at ________________________________
____________________________ residing at _________________________________