Paying Parents’ Debts

Question

Reb Shimon proudly returned to his former school,
this time as a teacher. However, when he received his first paycheck, he
noticed that a substantial sum had been deducted from his wages. A note
was attached, which read, “We are pleased you have benefited from your
education at this school and have now joined the teaching staff. However,
since your father still owes the school money for your tuition, we are
deducting the outstanding sum from your wages.” Reb Shimon does not
agree with this logic. His father is the one who owes the money. He
has no responsibility to pay off his father’s debts. Who is right?


Answer

The Shulchan Oruch (Choshen Mishpot
107:1, q.v.) rules that if a father passed away leaving his children to
inherit movable property, but no land, as well as some debts, there is no
legal obligation for the children to pay off their late father’s debts
(although the law is different nowadays). However, it would be a mitzvah
for the children to pay these debts. The Sema (Note 1) explains
that the mitzvah involved is that of honoring one’s parents. The
children do not wish their father to be remembered as one who does not
repay his debts. Since they have inherited his money, it is fitting that
they use it to restore his reputation. If their father did not leave them
any money or goods, this mitzvah does not apply. In Yoreh De’ah
(240:5), the Shulchan Oruch rules that one does not have to use
one’s own money to honor one’s parents. The Nesivos (ad loco)
adds that the fact that the children have a mitzvah to repay their
father’s debts does not affect their ownership of the inherited
property. Therefore, should one of the creditors grab some of the
inherited property in payment of the father’s debts, this would be
illegal. Beis Din would order the return of the impounded goods.

The Remo (Yoreh De’ah, as above)
rules that a son is not obligated to support his poor father from his own
funds. However, whatever funds he has set aside for charity should be used
for this purpose (since supporting one’s own relatives is the top
priority in charity distribution). A wealthy son should not use the money
he has set aside for charity to support his father, since he is well able
to do so from his own pocket.

This law only applies to the father’s personal
needs, such as food, clothing and housing. There is no obligation to use
funds which one set aside for charity to repay one’s father’s debts.
However, as mentioned above in the name of the Sema, one who does
so fulfils the mitzvah of honoring his parents. Indeed, the Remo
(Yoreh De’ah 253:12) rules that repaying a poor man’s debts is
a legitimate use of charity funds.

We
can therefore conclude that (a) the school has no right to deduct the
father’s outstanding debt from Reb Shimon’s wages. They must return
what they have already deducted. (b) If Reb Shimon’s father does not
have the means to pay his debt or has passed away, it would be a mitzvah
for Reb Shimon to restore his father’s good name by repaying his debt.
He may use money he has set aside for charity for this purpose, if he has
no other funds available. (c) If Reb Shimon has brothers, it would also be
a mitzvah for them to participate in repaying their father’s
debt. They should also honor their father.