American History of Inheritance Law
OXFORD INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LEGAL HISTORY, Stanley N. Katz ed., 2009
6 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2007 Last revised: 3 Apr 2009
This essay, written for the Encyclopedia of Legal History, summarizes and examines the history of inheritance law in the United States, from colonial times to the present day. The essay suggests that while British statutory and common law was the main source of American inheritance law - as one would expect in British colonies, inhabited by English settlers - American lawmakers began to go their own way in some respects from the very beginning, deviating from British rules of probate jurisdiction, intestacy, and will formalization and substituting rules that better suited colonial conditions. The American Revolution freed Americans to deviate as widely as they wished from British law. Still, following a burst of inheritance legislation inspired by republican values, such as the abolition of entails, the law in this area changed only gradually and in relatively small ways over the course of United States history. Although increased protection from disinheritance for a surviving spouse represents one abiding theme, American inheritance law has always been, and remains, marked by a robust freedom of testation that distinguishes our law from that of modern Britain and other countries in the western world.
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