When attorney Martin Shenkman moved his law offices last month leaving Teaneck after 15 years and setting up his practice in Paramus he decided to put his new quarters to good use. Beginning Jan. ‘3, Shenkman will host a series of morning seminars on estate planning and halacha, an area in which he has been actively involved for decades.
"I thought it would be an interesting alternative to an open house," he said. "Then it just grew as more people expressed interest in speaking."
And as it grew, he said, "I realized that there really has never been anything done of this magnitude on estate planning and Jewish law."
Launching the weekly "breakfast shiurim," Rabbi Chaim Jachter dayan on the bet din (judge on the religious court) of Elizabeth and on the faculty of the Torah Academy of Bergen County will explore the question, "Can a bet din overturn your secular will?" Jachter, author of the two-volume "Gray Matter," has also written several articles with Shenkman.
In subsequent weeks, presenters will include Rabbis Jay Braverman, Michael Taubes, Jeremy Weider, Steven Pruzansky, Daniel Rapp, and Shalom Baum. Lecture topics will include tzedakah, organ donation, the halachic perspective on disinheritance, and ethical wills.
In February, Shenkman will lead the group, exploring how to integrate Jewish values into a secular estate plan and focusing on matters such as powers of attorney, trusts for children, selecting fiduciaries, and the like.
"Many people appoint banks as trustees," he said, explaining the need to think through one’s goals in advance. "But if parents want their children to attend private Jewish schools, for example, they must specify that. Otherwise, how will the banks know?
"These kinds of issues come up all the time," said Shenkman. "They permeate estate planning, even for the non-religious."
The attorney said he is asked questions on these matters several times a month.
"I’ve done a lot of reading and research on these issues," he said. "They’re multidisciplinary problems, combining rabbinic and legal considerations." Sometimes, he noted, he has needed to consult social workers and psychologists as well.
Calling the Orthodox group Agudath Israel "a magnet" for these kinds of questions, Shenkman said he is often in touch with the legal department of the organization regarding issues of this kind and provided examples of situations that might lead to disputes.
"There may be fights within a family on whether the conditions of a living will violate halalcha," he said, "or whether it is permissible, or advisable, to disinherit a child who intermarries." In such cases, he said, someone in the family might seek outside counsel.
"The question is how to resolve these issues without a family feud," he said, adding that problems only intensify when people are forced to tackle "significant philosophical, religious, moral, and personal issues" at a time when "their nerves are already frayed" and they are in a deeply emotional situation. "They’re asked to face tough issues at a tough time," he said.
Shenkman said he has seen increased interest among both Jews and non-Jews in integrating religious values into estate planning and using such planning to foster and encourage appropriate behavior by heirs. "This [involves] both defining the behavior and figuring out what to do to encourage it," he said.
While shiurim are scheduled through April ‘, "many topics remain untouched," said Shenkman, who hopes to add more lectures after Pesach. "I’ve never seen a series that covers so much ground." He noted that while community programs are generally organized around a particular topic, such as organ donation, they don’t cover the wide range of topics to be explored in his breakfast meetings.
Shenkman said he also hopes to build a resource on the Internet containing this information and will reproduce handouts on these issues, to be available on request. "We’ll be recording the lectures and posting them on a Website," he said. When activated, the new site will be www.torahestateplanning.com.
The lectures, followed by a light breakfast, will be held from 8 to 8:45 a.m. at Shenkman’s office, 4 Forest Ave., Paramus. For further information, call (’01) 845-8400 or e-mail email@example.com