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Inheritance Laws in the United States of America

Inheritance is governed by statutes or laws and is treated differently throughout the World and, in fact, inheritance in the United States is governed by state law. Every one of the 50 states and all of the territories and the District of Columbia have a specific set of laws governing how they deal with property of those deceased who are residents and own property in that state.

During the Colonial Period the colonies adopted English inheritance law and, as of 1720, the colonies generally relied on the common law with respect to inheritance. In some colonies the colonial legislatures passed laws to change or modify the common law when it came to the inheritance of land and inheritance by children. The majority of colonies rejected primogeniture and permitted laws to allow younger sons and daughters to receive shares of their father's or mother' s estate.

Following the Revolution and separation from England, most states enacted laws that codified the common law provisions that had been in existence before the Revolution. States also passed statutes providing for widows to receive cash sums and statutes making it clear what a widow would receive upon renouncing her husband's will if she was not named in the will and some states even addressed the inheritance rights of illegitimate children.

In the 19th Century, as the country expanded toward the West, the laws of inheritance state by state, continued to evolve. As new western states entered the Union, they became community-property states. Wives in community-property states automatically inherited one-half of the community property, that is, the property acquired during the marriage and which neither spouse had received a part of from inheritance or gift. However, in four of the community-property states, California, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico, if the wife died first all the community property was inherited by her husband but, if husband died first, the wife could only claim half of the community property and the deceased husband , by will, could provide the other half to whomever he pleased.

Most states saw significant and major changes with regard to the treatment to women and inheritance during the 20th Century. During the course of the 20th Century , the portion of the deceased 's estate that went to a surviving spouse rather than to surviving children increased. For example, as late as 1935 over 90% of common-law states provided spousal shares lower than what would be awarded in community-property jurisdictions and by 1983 such jurisdictions were in the minority. Another
trend in the law among most American jurisdictions during the 20th Century was to treat spouses relatively more favorably than children and other relatives in statutes that decided what would happen to an estate when no will had been prepared by the deceased, known as intestacy statutes.

If you have a concern about estate law and wills and inheritance, please do not hesitate to contact our office and schedule an appointment. We will be honored to talk to you about estate planning! 

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Davis & Davis Attorneys at Law

Davis & Davis Attorneys At Law