Court Rules Woman Must Give Up Kafka Papers She Inherited

October 18, 2012

The New York Times published an fascinating story this week on a foreign court ruling that is a testament to the way that estate wishes sometimes have ripples effects for decades and generations into the future. Of course, it is critical to note that the legal rules underlying this case are far different than what a New York court might determine. However, the principles of needing to think about estate plans and personal property distribution for many years into the future still holds.

The Kakfa Papers Inheritance
Franz Kakfka, the well-known and incrediby influential author of the early 20th century, wrote a number of books, short stories, and letters in his shortened life. One of Kakfa's closest friends (and the executor of his estate) was the journalist Max Brod. Kafka died in 1924. When Mr. Brod fled from Europe in 1939 ( to avoid the Nazi invasion) he took with him a suitcase full of Kakfa papers. Mr. Brod died in 1968, leaving behind his own and Mr. Kafka's papers as an inheritance to his secretary, Esther Hoffe. Ms. Hoffe lived in Tel Aviv where she kept the incredibly valuable documents. In 1988 Ms. Hoffe sold the manuscript for a Kafka story, "The Trial" for $2 million. However, scholars have not been able to view the rest of the materials since the 1980s.

Ms. Hoffe herself died in 2007. Her daughter then inherited the papers. However, a legal fight soon ensued between the Israeli government and Ms. Hoffe's reclusive daughter. The daughter claimed that she is destitute and the papers were her only asset. The government contended that Mr. Brod did not actuallyy give the papers to Ms. Hoffe as a gift. Instead, they suggested that the secretary was simply given the papers in trust to be managed per his wishes. Mr. Brod's will did say, according to the latest court judgment, that "his archives" should go to a "public Jewish library or archive in Palestine." The story notes that the man was more specific later, suggesting that his documents should go to Hebrew University, where Israel's national library is located.

Recently, an Israeli judge found in favor of the government, rejecting the claim that the papers were a gift. Instead, the judge accepted with the trust argument and ordered that the materials be sent to Hebrew University. Tangentially there has been much disagreement between literary scholars as to whether the papers should be housed in Israel or Germany (where Kakfa lived most of his life). If the latest ruling is upheld then it is likely that the documents will all go to the Israeli national library.

Local residents might not have documents from well-known writers or thinkers. However, the same battles over personal property are not at all uncommon among family members. Many physical objects have immense value to certain individuals, and it is never prudent to leave out decision-making about where those items should go after one's passing. A full estate plan takes all obects into account so that there is little to no room for disagreement or feuding down the road.

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