Monday, November 20, 2017 - 2 Rabi' al-Awwal 1439

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My father left one third of his money to charity, should I use this money to settle his debt?

My father left one third of his money to charity, should I use this money to settle his debt?

Answer

When we read the three verses from the Quran which outline the Islamic system of inheritance and apportion the shares of all types of heirs, we will not fail to notice that the enforcement of a deceased person's will and the settlement of his debts take precedence over the distribution of his property among his heirs. This is mentioned four times in these verses so as to cover every possible situation. Moreover, all scholars agree that the settlement of debts takes precedence over the enforcement of a will. Besides, the rules of inheritance allow a person to leave a maximum of one-third of his property to people other than his heirs. This is what is covered by the will. In other words, a person's will should not exceed one-third of his or her property. Furthermore, it is not possible for anyone to make a will in favor of anyone of his heirs. The heirs receive only the shares apportioned to them by God the Almighty as outlined in the Quran.

This system is both fair and logical. The settlement of debts takes top priority because a debt represents an advantage enjoyed by the deceased during his life by the courtesy of another person. The amount of the loan which is a debt incurred by the deceased does not belong to him but to the lender. Hence, it must be paid back without delay and prior to the distribution of the estate.

Again, executing the deceased’s will takes precedence because a will embodies the owner's wishes. This is to say, every person is entitled to decide how a certain portion of his money should be used after his death. His right to determine this is stronger than the claim of his heirs to their shares. Normally, a will is made in favor of relatives other than eligible heirs. These relatives may be poor or elderly, or ones who were looked after by the deceased during his lifetime, but are not included among his heirs. Alternatively, a will is made for general charitable purposes. This means that this provision gives everyone an opportunity to earn rewards after their death. However, in order not to give a chance to anyone to abuse it, a person may not devote more than one-third of his property to bequests.

Once when Saad Ibn Abu Waqas fell ill, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) visited him. Saad told the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him): "O Messenger of God! I have only one daughter to inherit me. Shall I bequeath to her the greater portion of my property?" “No,” the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied. Saad asked, "How about one half?" “No,” the Prophet answered. Saad then asked, "One-third then?" The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "One-third is all right, but even then, one-third is much." He then gave him a piece of advice and told him, "To leave your heirs rich is better than to leave them poor, asking people for help."

The fact that God has determined the share of heirs Himself and outlined them in perfect detail in the Quran evinces the seriousness of the whole matter of inheritance. Had the distribution of estates been left to people, the door would have been left open for unfair treatment of heirs and to absurdities of the type we hear about in other cultures, where people leave large sums of money to their dogs and cats.

When we do not implement God’s law as prescribed, we create problems for ourselves of which your case is a very clear example. You divided your father's property before settling his debts and enforcing his will. But his heirs were unwilling to settle his debts from their shares. This is unfair. Had you repaid your father's debts first and enforced his will, the problem would not have arisen. The shares of your fellow heirs would have been reduced but they would not have been able to do anything about it.

The first mistake was made by your father when he asked his heirs to pay his debts. He had no reason to do so. If his property is sufficient for repayment, the debts will be automatically settled. If not, you as his son and your brothers and sisters [and your mother] are responsible for their settlement.

Repayment of a deceased person's debt is very important because in a Muslim society, money lending is an aspect of social security, since it earns the lender no interest other than God’s reward. If people lose the money they lend because the debtor dies, they will be very reluctant to help their fellow brothers who need to borrow. To emphasize the seriousness of the whole matter, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not offer the janazah prayer [prayer over the deceased] over a deceased who died indebted. Once, when the body of a dead person was brought into the mosque for prayer, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) inquired about his financial affairs and he was told that he had some outstanding debts. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said that he would not lead the janazah prayer and told his Companions to go ahead and offer it without him. One of them, Abu Talha, declared that he would repay the debts on behalf of the deceased. It was only then that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) led the prayer. Later, when the financial situation of the Muslim state improved, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself, as head of the state, settled the debts of anyone who died without leaving any money to repay his loans.

Your fellow heirs cannot disclaim their responsibility for your father's debts since he left sufficient funds to settle them. Nor are they entitled to tell you to use what he has left for charity to repay his debts. That money does not belong to them to determine how it should be used. They are simply using someone else's property to evade their own responsibility. What you should do is explain the situation to them and tell them that their attitude is unlawful. If they persist, then your best course of action is to settle your father’s debts yourself. By so doing, you prove yourself to be a very dutiful son. You discharge your father's obligations and at the same time allow him to earn the reward of his charitable act. You will be rewarded abundantly by God the Almighty for doing your duty by your father. You will not fail to enjoy God’s blessing in this life for being kind and dutiful. May God the Almighty help you do what is right.
 

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