There is not much that can create as much animosity among otherwise agreeable family members as the subject of family wealth, particularly inheritance. Much of the contention could be avoided if we recognized that the Bible is not silent on inheritance, but offers principles that can guide family wealth management, including our estate planning and bequests. Apart from decisions about the division of estates, however, it is clear that family wealth is a tool of dominion that creates incentives for righteous living among family members, provides a financial reserve to assist needy family members, and provides capital for the startup and extension of family businesses.
Inheritance and Incentives
Family relationships are central to the survival of any society, and Biblical societies recognize that different generations have mutual responsibilities to one another. These responsibilities are both spiritual and material. Parents are to provide for their children by teaching, leading, and disciplining them according to Biblical truth. They are also to provide for them materially, ultimately laying up an inheritance (2 Cor. 12:14). Grown children likewise have a duty to care for aging parents.
The parent-child relationship is therefore more than an emotional bond it is spiritual, intellectual, and financial. God structured the family to operate through these bonds, and it is obvious that He gives earthly rewards for faithfulness to family covenants. When rights of inheritance are completely preserved, every generation is made better off. Parents have an incentive to train children to be wise in business matters, to save, and to give generously to others, so that wealth turned over to the children will not be poorly invested or squandered. The inheritance gives children an earthly reward for behaving wisely and caring well for their parents. Reinforcing the moral obligations of children is the implicit threat of disinheritance for gross misconduct or for neglect of their responsibilities to their parents.
Family wealth can, and should, be used to relieve family members who are in financial distress. R. J. Rushdoony noted that the family, "in providing for its sick and needy members, in educating children, caring for parents, and in coping with emergencies and disasters, has done and is doing more than the state has ever done or can do."1 More will be said about this in the second part of this essay.
Any change in society which weakens this incentive structure will weaken the family. As R.J. Rushdoony observed, "No society can prosper which weakens the family, either by removing the family's responsibilities for education and welfare, or by limiting the family's control of its property and inheritance by usurpation."2
Proverbs 13:22 states, "A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous." Building of family wealth is a worthy goal for a righteous man. Yet it is not to be passed on to succeeding generations without considering the spiritual condition of the heirs. Those who are not heirs of the spiritual inheritance of faith should not be made heirs of the material inheritance. R.J. Rushdoony noted that Caleb passed over his covenant-breaking sons to make his daughter Achsah and his son-in-law Othniel his chief heirs (Jos. 15:16-19; Jud. 1:13-15). "The priority of faith was set forth over blood and sex."3
There is ... a required inequality of inheritance, because there is a required moral division among men, and a religious division. God's law requires that the godly seed be blessed, and the ungodly set aside.... The essential alienation of an inheritance is its transmissions to ungodly or to irresponsible hands. A portion, or a providential bestowment, should be the lot only of the righteous. It is thus unrighteousness to transmit an inheritance to the ungodly, whether blood kin or not.4
As unrighteous children may not inherit, so righteous children may not be disinherited. When the younger son of Luke 15 demanded his inheritance, the father gave it immediately. (An inheritance may be given before the death of the parents.) As is well known, the son then squandered the inheritance in ungodly pursuits. The father acted with great compassion when the son repented, but it should be noted that the father did not erase the consequences of the son's sin. The elder brother's envy (vv. 28-30) was perhaps partly rooted in a concern that his father's wealth would now be further divided with his younger brother. The father reassured him, saying (v. 31), "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours." Faithful children may not be deprived of their portion; the younger son would have no further inheritance from the father.
Only the child's unrighteousness or incompetence justify disinheritance favoritism does not. Thus, a father could not disinherit a son because of a dislike for the mother (Dt. 21:15-17).
Dividing the Inheritance
Under the Mosaic law, only sons normally received an inheritance. (The "probate" case of the daughters of Zelophehad [Num. 27:1-11] added the provision that daughters may inherit if there are no sons.) Sons would carry on the name, land ownership, and business of the father, while daughters would typically be involved in the interests of their husband's families. A daughter was not left without any resources. First, she could expect a bride price to be paid by the groom upon her marriage, establishing a kind of trust fund managed for her benefit by her father.5 Her father had the option of contributing to this trust fund himself, in essence granting his daughter an inheritance. Second, a daughter would partake in the inheritance of her husband's family. The exclusion of daughters was certainly not because of any inability on the part of women to handle financial affairs. Proverbs 31 describes the virtuous wife as a woman who clearly knows how to make good financial decisions. Today, because the associated practice of paying bride prices has been almost entirely lost, parents wishing to follow the general principle of the Mosaic inheritance law would do well to include their daughters in the inheritance.
Biblically, the eldest son gains a double portion of the inheritance (Dt. 21:17). That is, in a family with four sons, the inheritance would be divided into five parts, with the eldest son receiving two parts and the other three sons each receiving one part. R.J. Rushdoony says that this implies the first-born son's primary responsibility for the care of the parents, and a double portion of responsibility for any debts the parents may leave behind.6 The reason for the unequal division, as given in Deuteronomy, is that the firstborn son is "the beginning of [the father's] strength." The double portion is a celebration of the laying of the cornerstone of a legacy. However, the consequences are practical as well. Financially, the first-born son would be in a position to serve as a "redeemer" for his parents and siblings, perhaps symbolizing Christ as the first-born over all creation (Col. 1:15).
Today, credit markets and the state's supplanting of family functions have made it easier for families to live without the network of extensive financial dependencies that would have characterized families of antiquity. Family support structures have been largely replaced by welfare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other state "safety net" programs. With the devaluation of the family, the practical reasons for unequal division of the inheritance have been lost. Gone, too, is the firstborn son's sense of a special duty to his parents or siblings.
In the Old Testament record, the firstborn son by birth order was frequently a covenant-breaker, and the rights and duties of the firstborn son devolved upon a younger son. In this way Jacob and Joseph became privileged as firstborn. It is also worth noting that the primary heir was also the one who took the elder parents under his direct care; as R. J. Rushdoony noted, "Abraham lived with Isaac and Jacob, not with Ishmael, or with his sons by Keturah. Isaac lived with Jacob, not Esau, and Jacob lived under the care and supervision of Joseph."7 Of course, we must be careful to distinguish between a Biblical requirement and a cultural tradition the primary heir is not necessarily best suited in every respect for caring for aging parents but the double portion would typically put that heir in a better financial position to provide for additional dependents.
A Comprehensive Inheritance
Parents and children both must remember that an inheritance is more than bank accounts, houses, and heirlooms. Many parents who have not provided a material inheritance, either through neglect or inability, have passed on priceless treasures through their teaching and example. There is no ready substitute for parents' or grandparents' model of Christian piety and faithfulness. Biblical families recognize that different generations have material and spiritual responsibilities to one another.
1. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1 (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1973), 181.
2. ibid., 181.
3. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 2 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986), 179.
4. ibid., 180.
5. See Timothy D. Terrell, "Recovering the Bride Price," Chalcedon Report, May 2002.
6. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Law and Society, p. 172.
7. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1, 180. Mentoring.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.