Proud of his religion and worried about its future, Chicago dentist Max Feinberg wrote a will with an unusual catch: His grandchildren wouldn't inherit a penny if they married someone who wasn't Jewish.
His decision led to family feuds, lawsuits, countersuits and, on Thursday, an unanimous ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that Feinberg and his wife were within their rights to disinherit any grandchildren who married outside the faith.
"Equal protection does not require that all children be treated equally ... and the free exercise clause does not require a grandparent to treat grandchildren who reject his religious beliefs and customs in the same manner as he treats those who conform to his traditions," Justice Rita Garman wrote in a ruling that overturned decisions by two lower courts.
One disinherited granddaughter had argued it was improper for a will to set up conditions that promote religious intolerance in people's marriage decisions or even encouraged couples to divorce.
"It is at war with society's interest in eliminating bigotry and prejudice, and conflicts with modern moral standards of religious tolerance," said Michele Feinberg Trull's brief to the state Supreme Court.
The court's ruling was based partly on technicalities in the way this estate was arranged. The court did not provide a broad ruling on whether similar religious restrictions would be valid under other circumstances.
Heritage and faith
The dispute has its roots in 1986, when Feinberg died.
He put his money into trusts for his family, but his will declared that any grandchild marrying someone who wasn't Jewish "shall be deemed to be deceased" and would inherit nothing.
Feinberg's will gave control of the trust to his wife, Erla. When she died and the grandchildren were to inherit $250,000 each, she followed her husband's wishes and imposed the same restrictions.
By that time, four of the five grandchildren had married non-Jews.
That triggered a series of disputes over the estate. Trull sued her own parents, accusing them of mishandling the money. The parents tried to get the lawsuit dismissed on the grounds that the daughter was "dead" for purposes of inheritance and had no standing to sue.
So the courts had to decide whether it's acceptable for a will to base inheritance on someone's marriage and religion.
Feinberg's son, Michael, argues there's nothing wrong with it.
Michael, who stands to inherit more money if his children are cut out, argued in court documents that the will simply rewards the grandchildren who help preserve the "heritage and faith" his father loved.
His position won the support of several Jewish organizations – Agudath Israel, the National Council of Young Israel and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
"A descendant who marries out of the faith has repudiated observant Judaism, endangering the survival of the Jewish people ... and has forfeited any moral claim to financial support from his or her Jewish ancestor," the groups said in a "friend of the court" brief.
Michael Feinberg, who is the co-executor of his parent's estate, was pleased by the ruling but had no other comment, his attorney said. Trull's attorney said she was disappointed but looking forward to court action on her other legal claims.
The two sides of the family can't even agree on what to call the part of the will causing all the trouble. The granddaughter calls it "the Jewish clause." Her parents have adopted the phrase "religious preference clause."
The state Supreme Court avoided that dispute and called it a "beneficiary restriction clause."