A Will to Give

Roman Blum survived the Nazis and lived to the ripe old age of 97 before dying last year. Along the way he managed to amass a fortune estimated to be close to $40 million. But since Blum never wrote a will and, so far, no living relatives have been located, his estate may end up in the coffers of New York State.

As individuals carrying the surname Blum — or relatives of such individuals — carefully research their family trees hoping to prove a connection, there are lessons all of us can learn from the sorry saga of what, according to the state comptroller’s office, is the largest unclaimed estate in New York State history.

There has been much speculation as to why Mr. Blum didn’t write a will. Was it an effort to deny the inevitable? Did he really think, as some friends suggested, that having survived Hitler he would live forever? Did he find the notion of passing away so difficult to deal with? Was it reluctance to share information with his attorney about the true extent of his wealth? Or was it simply that he couldn’t decide whom he wanted to name as his beneficiaries?

“I spoke to Roman many times before he passed away, and he knew what to do, how to name beneficiaries,” Mason D. Corn, his accountant and friend for three decades, told The New York Times. “Two weeks before he died, I had finally gotten him to sit down. He saw the end was coming. He was becoming mentally feeble. We agreed. I had to go away, and so he told me, ‘O.K., when you come back I will do it.’ But by then it was too late. We came this close — but we missed the boat.”

One of the most obvious lessons to be drawn from this debacle is the importance of not missing that boat. Writing a will may be a very uncomfortable experience, but it can help prevent — or at least minimize — a tremendous amount of misery for family members at a later date. It is crucial that the will is written in a way that is binding both according to halachah and state law, and it is prudent that a halachic authority and an attorney be consulted.

Disputes over inheritance issues have been a primary cause of family rifts, some of which have lasted for decades and spanned generations. While these battles can and do erupt even when there is a will, they are less likely to occur and are often milder in nature when the clear wishes of the deceased are known.

In the case of individuals like Mr. Roman, writing a will would have accomplished an equally important purpose: For had his material assets gone to a worthy cause, it would have ensured not only a lasting legacy on this temporal world, but everlasting benefits to his soul in the World to Come.

Since we don’t know why he chose not to write a will, and he isn’t alive to defend that decision, it would be unfair and inappropriate to judge the motives and thought process of the late Mr. Blum. But we can only imagine what a difference such a large sum of money could have made, had it been left to the right organizations or institutions.

There is an additional aspect worth contemplating.

An elderly man who, like Mr. Roman, has no immediate surviving relatives, approached his spiritual mentor several years ago to consult with him about writing a will.

The Rav urged him not to wait, and to use a significant portion of his wealth to fund Torah study while he was still alive. Although more than enough money would be left over to take care of his day-to-day needs for years to come, the elderly man, who was eager to earn even more money, firmly resisted.

He did agree to set up a charitable trust that would receive his entire estate after his passing. A few years later, he revealed to one of his trustees that he had lost his entire fortune in a series of bad investments, and bitterly regretted not having followed the advice of his Rav.

Giving tzedakah certainly isn’t the only way to leave a perpetual legacy. Many precious Jews who were niftar without children never had the means to distribute large sums to charity, yet the myriad good deeds they performed ensured that they amassed countless zechuyos in their lifetime that will escort them for eternity.

All those who were chosen by Hashem to enjoy material success must recognize that they have a mission to fulfill. L’Hashem ha’aretz u’meloah — the world and all that is in it belongs to Hashem. Those fortunate individuals blessed with worldly riches are merely trustees of Hashem’s gifts, with the obligation to use their wealth to aid the poor, Torah institutions, and other charitable entities.

Much better than having it end up in the state coffers.