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Inspired by this question.

If a non-Jew dies, do his children (or other inheritors) automatically assume possession of his properties (karka), loose items (metaltelin), and debts the way Jewish inheritors do, or do they need to do an action of acquisition (kinyan)?

If they do not automatically acquire the inheritance, does it become, free-for-all (hefker) until they do an act of acquisition (kinyan)?

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The Rambam, in Hilchot Nachalot 6:9, rules that:

הגוי יורש את אביו, מן התורה; אבל שאר ירושותיהן, מניחין אותן לפי מנהגם
A non-Jew inherits his father according to Torah law; however, the for the rest of their inheritances, we leave them according to their customs.

The ruling regarding a father to son is based on the Talmud Kiddushin 18a which derives this rule from the verse in Devarim 2:9:

כִּי לִבְנֵי-לוֹט, נָתַתִּי אֶת-עָר יְרֻשָּׁה
because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for an inheritance.

The Maggid Mishnah on the Rambam points out that the reason we leave the law up to the local custom in the other cases is:

שלא מצינו שיהיה סדר נחלות אלא לישראל בלבד
for we have not found an order of inheritance except for Jews

implying, that the difference is as regards order of inheritance, not the existence of the right of inheritance. As such, it seems that the son, or whoever else happens to be the one inheriting, acquires the property immediately parallel to the rules of inheritance by Jews.

The Minchat Chinuch (Mitzva 400) questions this read and suggests that indeed with the exception of a father-to-son, all other non-Jewish deaths are like the deaths of a relative-less convert whereby all their property is rendered ownerless.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach (Minchat Shlomo 1:86) rejects this Minchat Chinuch, affirming that the Rambam held that the non-Jewish inheritance customs do affect Jewish civil law and that the other inheritances work as per local custom.

He also notes that even according to the Minchat Chinuch, the rule Dina DeMalchuta Dina would ensure that it remains forbidden to take the property of a son-less non-Jew.

Some (Peri Yitzchak 2:60, Har Tzevi Yoreh Deah 223) debate if the above discussion about fathers and sons applies equally to mothers and daughters.

I finally note that the Shulchan Aruch excludes the part about local custom in his ruling on the matter in Choshen Mishpat 283:1.

  • Does this also cover the case of a non-Jewish father of a Jewish son (i.e. the father intermarried), or only entirely non-Jewish families (where we say that their customs are their customs)? – Monica Cellio Jun 16 '17 at 22:38
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    @moni I have an answer elsewhere here about Jew inheriting from non jewish father. I think in the context of chametz on Pesach. In short no inheritance since no halakhic relationship but derabanan a ger inherits to keep him from going back to not keeping mitzvo – Double AA Jun 16 '17 at 22:42
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It seems they do (from the Gemara in Kidushin 18 and Maran Habet Yosef in SHU"T Avkat Rochel Siman 90).

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