Residents outside of Israel are required, from time to time, to find out if they are considered successors according to inheritance laws in Israel, regarding family matters or a certain asset in Israel. The Succession Law of 1965 states in Section 2, that "Inheritance rights are governed by the law, unless there is a will". In other words, when the deceased did not leave a legally valid will, succession is determined by the law.
In this article only one question will be discussed - who are the successors (legal heirs) according to Israeli law? The second part of the Succession Law, whose title is Succession By Law completely covers this subject. To begin with, it must be noted, that although the wording of the law does not directly address it, the law creates different stratums, or levels, of succession, according to the degree of family kinship.
Section 10 of the Succession Law states:
The successors by statute are:
1. a person who was, at the time of the decedent's death, the spouse of the decedent;
2. the children of the decedent and their descendants; the parents of the decedent and their descendants, the grandparents of the decedent and their descendants (in this statute - the decedent's next of kin).
Section 11 relates to the way the estate is distributed in the case the decedent is survived by a spouse. The section details the different situations which go beyond the framework of the above list. When there is not a surviving spouse, Section 12 sets forth inheritance among the decedent's family members where priority is given to the the decedent's children (or their descendants); when there are no children, the parents inherit; and if there are no surviving parents - then the parent's of the parents (grandparents) inherit. "If the testator has a surviving first degree relative, then relatives of other degrees have no rights of succession, and if there are no first degree successors, but there is a second degree successor, then there are no rights for third degree relatives" (civil appeal 660/74, Sinnydovska vs. The Administrator General, verdict 29 (2) page 81).
The three degrees of succession are:
1. The decedent's children and their descendants - first degree (children, grandchildren great-grandchildren, etc.).
2. The parents and their descendents - second degree (parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, etc.).
3. The parent's parents and their descendents - third degree (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc.).
Section 12 of the Inheritance Law determines the order of priority - the children are first degree, followed by parents, and then the parent's parents. Therefore, if a first degree successor - or his descendents - survive the testator (children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren), successor rights for second and third degree survivors do not exist. This is also the case of a second degree successor regarding third degree successors.
Section 13 sets forth, that successors of the same degree will inherit equal shares among themselves, as expressed in the following language: "the decedent's children divide it equally between them, and the parents of the decedent divide it equally between them, and the great-grandparents divide it equally between them".
According to Section 16, an adopted child is the successor of those who adopted him as if he was their child, but is not considered a successor to the adoptive parent's next of kin. That is to say, an adopted child is considered a successor only through the adopting parent and the same rule applies when the adopting parent inherits the adopted child.
We now turn to Section 17, which was the basis for unfounded rumors concerning the method of succession in Israel. Section 17 (a) states "In the case that there are no successors according to Section 10 through 16, the state will inherit as a successor at law". The inheritance right of the State of Israel is not an “automatic” one, as some rumors assume. In order for there to be a right of inheritance for the state, it must be unequivocally proven that no successors at law exist, e.g. no great-grandchildren, no descendents of nieces and nephews, no descendents of cousins, etc. If it is not unequivocally proven there are no heirs at law, there is no succession order for the state (civil appeal 686/74 The Attorney General vs N. Zinotz. judgement 29 (2) page 204). In other words, in a situation where doubt has arisen concerning the existence of successors at law, the state of Israel does not have the right of succession.
In practical terms, in certain cases in which the decedent has assets in Israel and it is impossible to locate any heir, the state may take custody of the decedent's assets in order to transfer them to a lawful heir in the future. If the Administrator General is of the opinion that this is a case of a decedent without any next of kin, it must diligently investigate in Israel and, as the circumstances dictate, also abroad, and present to the court the results of its efforts in order for the court to recognize the State of Israel as the lawful successor.
This article was published in the magazine We In America, February, 2013
The information contained in this article should be considered general information and not a legal or professional opinion. The reader must get specific professional advise before any legal or other action relying on the article. The writer and publishing house are under no legal responsibility to the readers.
The Author: Dganit Toren, Advocate, holds a LL.M. degree in Commercial Law from the University of Tel Aviv. She is a member of the Israel Bar Association and The State Bar of California.