While you set about to making a last will and testament, deciding what kind of trust to establish, and making other estate planning decisions, you probably have not taken a lot of time to think about where our inheritance laws come from. But trying to figure out what should happen to a person’s property after that person dies has been an idea that humanity has tried to answer for as long as recorded history.
The earliest ancient Mesopotamian civilizations had already established some quite detailed inheritance laws by at least 2000 BC. Similar inheritance provisions appeared in a number of ancient civilizations, but perhaps the most important set of laws as far as United States law is concerned came from the British Isles.
As a former colony of the British Empire, much of modern American law has its roots in British common law. This is also true of inheritances. However, American law, even early on, took a different approach to inheritances than its British common law counterparts. For example, even prior to the American Revolution, some American colonies had differentiated their inheritance laws from British common law. In British common law, the eldest son of any family was entitled to inherit the entire estate, while in some of the colonies, that law changed to recognizing each child’s individual right to receive an inheritance.
Following the revolution, and in the subsequent centuries, American inheritance law has changed, sometimes quickly, but more often very slowly. In 2002, for example, a Massachusetts court had to use a law that had been originally enacted in 1836 when it tried to determine what inheritance rights a child conceived after the father’s death was entitled to.