Should We Leave Our Children Inheritances?

Randy Alcorn

Scripture says that “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22). As a result, many Christians defend and justify leaving vast sums of wealth to their children and grandchildren. I think in order to understand the principle behind this verse, we need to compare what an inheritance meant in biblical times, versus what an inheritance means in this culture today. 

In Old Testament times, passing on ownership of the land to children and grandchildren was vital. Without it, succeeding generations couldn’t do their farming or raise livestock. Many people lived at a subsistence level. Most were too poor to buy land. With no inheritance they could end up enslaved or unable to care for their parents and grandparents, who normally lived on the property with them until they died.

Today in America, however, things are very different. Inheritances are usually windfalls coming to people who live separately from their parents, have their own careers, are financially independent, and already have more than they need. Most often they aren’t carrying on the family business, or if they are, they don’t need a windfall in order to continue doing so. They have dependable sources of income generated by their own work, skills, saving, and investing. When such people inherit a farm, house, or other real estate, what becomes of it? Typically, they liquidate the asset or use it as a further source of income. They do not need the land or the money. Having it will simply mean increasing their standard of living, sometimes dramatically.

Those who cite Scripture to prove that parents should leave an inheritance to children typically do not follow Scripture’s guidelines of leaving to sons only, a double portion to the firstborn, and so on. Hebrew firstborn sons were legally entitled to a double portion of inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). If a man died without sons, the inheritance went to his daughters, if no daughters to his brothers, if no brothers to his nearest relatives (Numbers 27:1-11). Ultimately land could not be lost to a family line, as it reverted to them in the year of Jubilee, when all debts were canceled.

It seems inconsistent to say that an inheritance should be left because the Bible says so but then to turn around and do it very differently than the Bible explains. A better approach is to understand the reasons for inheritance, then see these not as rules to be legalistically obeyed but as underlying principles that we should weigh.

In Biblical times, daughters often remained in their father’s home or they lived with their husbands, enjoying the benefits of his land. A father’s inheritance did not normally go to his daughters, most likely so as not to interfere with their husbands’ responsibility to provide for them. As a father of daughters, I consider it important not to leave money that would interfere with my sons-in-law’s responsibility to provide for my daughters. How dare I take away from them the character-building privilege and divine calling of working hard to care for their families? Many well-meaning parents have caused serious marital conflicts by leaving money to their grown children. Money that’s “his” and “hers” divides the marriage and fosters an unhealthy independence. Married couples who inherit wealth should not keep it separate from each other.