The laws of inheritance regulate the disposition of private property after the owner's death. The ability of an owner to dispose freely of his or her property posthumously is embodied in the legal instrument of the will. Today in all Western countries and in many others, one may inherit under the provisions of a will or, if there is no will, of statutes called intestacy laws that designate the order and proportion by which relatives and spouses shall inherit. California state controller unclaimed property is available online.
In many early legal systems property belonged to the family, clan, or tribe, and within the family the father generally controlled its administration. Various provisions existed for distribution on the father's death. In Mesopotamia the widow managed the property for the duration of her life, and on her death it was divided among the children. In India inherited property could not be sold, but sons had the right to divide it. In Sparta the eldest son was entitled to all the father's property; in Athens the sons shared equally; in ancient Israel the eldest son was given a double share—a rule that was followed in parts of colonial New England. In Muslim countries one male had the share of two females. Thus in early civilization property devolved automatically, according to the laws of each society. California state controller unclaimed property is available online.
The Right to Will Property
The right to make a will is the right to designate one's heir, and because it gives one the power to dispose of property after death, it is a recognition of the right of private property rather than of family, clan, or tribal ownership. Perhaps the earliest wills were made in Athens where, under the reforms of Solon (c.639–559 B.C.), a childless man could will his property to anyone, whereas before that time his estate went to his clan. By the time of the Justinian Code (A.D. 529), Roman law recognized many types of wills, including oral wills declared in the presence of seven witnesses or before a public official. California state controller unclaimed property is available online.
In Anglo-Saxon England, wills of land could be made only with royal approval and could not be revoked. Early in the Norman period (c.1100), primogeniture—the practice by which land devolved automatically on the eldest legitimate son—came into wide use. There were, however, pockets of contrary custom, where land went to the youngest son (borough English) or to all the sons equally (gavelkind). Only legitimate children could inherit. To make it impossible for the heir to sell his land, the unique English concept of the entailed estate was utilized (see entail). Land could be conveyed, for example, to "A and the heirs of his body." "A" did not fully own the land but merely had the right to its use during his lifetime. At "A's" death the land went to his heir under the rules of primogeniture. The entailed estate was common in England until the 19th century. California state controller unclaimed property is available online.
Until 1540, when enactment of the Statute of Wills enabled landowners to will some or all of their lands as they chose, a landowner could achieve the effect of a will through the trust device, which allowed him to transfer property to one or more trustees on condition that he be permitted to use and profit from it until his death (see trust, fiduciary). The trustees would then convey it to the person or persons named in the trust. This device is still used today both in England and the United States, whose inheritance laws are largely derived from English laws. Called an inter vivos, or between-the-living trust, it is utilized to avoid the payment of inheritance taxes that would otherwise be levied at the owner's death. California state controller unclaimed property is available online.
Women as Heirs and Testators
In early Rome a male was always responsible for the care and support of the family's women, and the question of women as heirs was irrelevant. Mosaic law, however, permitted women to hold property, and a daughter could inherit if there were no sons. In English law, also, brotherless women could inherit, and a woman could own property and could will it to the same extent as a male. A wife, however, could not be her husband's heir because she was not of his bloodline. Nevertheless, under the right of dower, a widow could own one-third of her husband's lands for the duration of her life.
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