Jewish Journal

Is Britain Adopting Sharia Inheritance Laws?

by Susan Esther Barnes

March 26, 2014 | 1:30 am

Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

The Telegraph recently published the misleadingly titled, “Islamic Law is Adopted by British Legal Chiefs” about some “guidance” published by The Law Society about how to write British Wills in accordance with Sharia law.

These days, anything that has to do with Sharia law in a Western country is a hot-button issue, so it’s important to take a close look at this situation.

First, in Western society, as in many other societies, we encourage people to write a Last Will and Testament, a legal document that tells our survivors what we want done with our possessions after we die. Every country, and every State in the US, has laws and regulations regarding how Wills should be written and carried out.

Unfortunately, many people, for various reasons, don’t get around to signing a Will before they die. Countries and States also have laws about what happens to a person’s property if they die without a valid Will. This “guidance,” from what I understand, has nothing to do with what happens if a person dies without a valid Will.

So, all the statements about how this is a change to British Law and how it creates a “parallel legal system” for Muslims, as quoted in The Telegraph article cited above, ring a bit hollow to me.

Yes, I agree that various aspects of a traditional Muslim Will, such as giving men more money than women, disinheriting people who aren’t religious, and not recognizing marriages that are secular or conducted under other religions, do not match Western values. I agree women and others will be unfairly disadvantaged when Wills are written in this way.

However, I don’t see this as a change in the way the law treats anyone. In Britain, as in the United States, people have a choice about what they do with their property after they die. A person can choose to distribute it similarly to how it would be distributed if they had died without a Will, or they can choose a completely different distribution. They can choose to give money to one or more of their children, or to none of them.

They can even choose to distribute the money in a way that seems completely unfair. For instance, my mother’s mother left me more money than she left my sister, for no good reason. It wasn’t nice, it wasn’t fair, but it was certainly legal. (As an aside, after my mother dies – no time soon, I hope –  I plan to give half of the money I inherited from her mother to my sister, so we’ll be even, although I have no legal obligation to do so).

So, I don’t see how this “guidance” really changes anything. If a person wants to discriminate in his or her Will on the basis of gender, religion, or other reasons, they were able to do so before, and they’re still able to do so now. The “guidance” may make it a bit easier for them to do so because more lawyers will know how to do it. However, our inheritance laws (and Britain’s, I assume), have always been about distributing property the way the deceased would have wanted, not about distributing it in a way we think is right or fair.

Is it really wrong to give guidance to lawyers so they can write Wills that will ensure the deceased’s property is distributed in the way they desire?

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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