William Hogarth's plate 1 from A Rake's Progress, "The Young Heir Takes Possession Of The Miser's Effects" as his inheritance.

Inheritance is the practice of passing on property, titles, debts, rights and obligations upon the death of an individual. It has long played an important role in human societies. The rules of inheritance differ between societies and have changed over time.



In jurisdictions, an heir is a person who is entitled to receive a share of the decedent's property, via the rules of inheritance in the jurisdiction where the decedent died or owned property at the time of death. Strictly speaking, one becomes an heir only upon the death of the decedent. It is improper to speak of the "heir" of a living person, since the exact identity of the persons entitled to inherit are not determined until the time of death. In a case where an individual has such a position that only her/his own death before that of the decedent would prevent the individual from becoming an heir, the individual is called an heir apparent. There is a further concept of jointly inheriting, pending renunciation by all but one, which is called coparceny.

In modern legal use, the terms inheritance and heir refer only to succession of property from a decedent who has died intestate. It is a common mistake to refer to the recipients of property through a will as heirs when they are properly called beneficiaries, devisees, or legatees.


Detailed studies have been made in the Anthropological and sociological customs of patrilineal succession, is also known as gavelkind, where only male children can inherit. Some cultures also employ matrilineal succession only passing property along the female line. Other practices include primogeniture, under which all property goes to the eldest child, specifically it is often the eldest son, or ultimogeniture, in which everything is left to the youngest child. Some ancient societies and most modern states employ partible inheritance, under which every child inherits (usually equally).

Historically, there were also mixed systems:

  • According to Islamic inheritance jurisprudence, sons inherit twice as much as daughters. The complete laws governing inheritance in Islam are complicated and take into account many kinship relations, but in principle males inherit twice as much as females with some exceptions. However, the Indonesian Minangkabau people (from western Sumatra), despite being Muslim, employ only complete matrilineal succession with property and land passing down from mother to daughter.
  • Among ancient Israelites, the inheritance is patrilineal. It comes from the father, who bequeaths only to his male descendants (daughters don't inherit). The eldest son received twice as much as the other sons. The father gives his name to his children; for example: the sons of Israel are called Israelites, because the land belonged to the father, and every one of his twelve sons gave his name to his descendants. Example: the sons of Judah are called Yehudi (which is translated into Latin as Judaeus and into English as Jew.)
  • In Galicia (Spain) it was typical that all children (both men and women) had a part of the inheritance, but one son (the one who inherited the house) inherited one-third of all the inheritance. This son was called the mellorado (literally, "improved upon"). In some villages the mellorado even received two-thirds of all the inheritance. This two-thirds would be all the family's lands, while other children received their part in money.
  • In eastern Swedish culture, from the 13th century until the 19th century, sons inherited twice as much as daughters. This rule was introduced by the Regent Birger Jarl, and it was regarded as an improvement in its era, since daughters were previously usually left without.

Employing differing forms of succession can affect many areas of society. Gender roles are profoundly affected by inheritance laws and traditions. Primogeniture has the effect of keeping large estates united and thus perpetuating an elite. With partible inheritance large estates are slowly divided among many descendants and great wealth is thus diluted, leaving higher opportunities to individuals to make a success. (If great wealth is not diluted, the positions in society tend to be much more fixed and opportunities to make an individual success are lower.)

Inheritance can be organized with bbc[clarification needed] in a way that its use is restricted by the desires of someone (usually of the decedent).[1] An inheritance may have been organized as a fideicommissum, which usually cannot be sold or diminished, only its profits are disposable. A fideicommissum's succession can also be ordered in a way that determines it long (or eternally) also with regard to persons born long after the original descendant. Royal succession has typically been more or less a fideicommissum, the realm not (easily) to be sold and the rules of succession not to be (easily) altered by a holder (a monarch).

In more archaic days, the possession of inherited land has been much more like a family trust than a property of an individual. Even in recent years, the sale of the whole of or a significant portion of a farm in many European countries required consent from certain heirs, and/or heirs had the intervening right to obtain the land in question with same sales conditions as in the sales agreement in question.

Islamic Laws of Inheritance

The Quran introduced a number of different rights and restrictions on matters of inheritance, including general improvements to the treatment of women and family life compared to the pre-Islamic societies that existed in the Arabian Peninsula at the time.[2] The Quran also presented efforts to fix the laws of inheritance, and thus forming a complete legal system. This development was in contrast to pre-Islamic societies where rules of inheritance varied considerably.[2] Furthermore, the Quran introduced additional heirs that were not entitled inheritance in pre-Islamic times, mentioning nine relatives specifically of which six were female and three were male. In addition to the above changes, the Quran imposed restrictions on testamentary powers of a Muslim in disposing his or her property. In their will, a Muslim can only give out a maximum of one third of their property.

The Quran contains only three verses that give specific details of inheritance and shares, in addition to few other verses dealing with testamentary. But this information was used as a starting point by Muslim jurists who expounded the laws of inheritance even further using Hadith, as well as methods of juristic reasoning like Qiyas. Nowadays, inheritance is considered an integral part of Shariah Law and its application for Muslims is mandatory.

Jewish Laws of Inheritance (Torah/Old Testament)

The inheritance is patrilineal. The father—that is, the owner of the land—bequeaths only to his male descendents, so the Promised Land passes from one Jewish father to his sons. The Promised Land is called "The Land of Israel" because it belongs to Israel, and his sons are called Israelites denoting their connection with the land of their father.

There was one exception. In Numbers 27:1-4, the daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah) of the tribe of Manasseh come to Moses and ask for their father's inheritance, as they have no brothers. In Numbers 27:7-11, Jehovah grants that if a man has no sons, then his daughters may inherit, and lays down the order of inheritance: a man's sons inherit first, daughters if no sons, brothers if he has no children, and so on.

Later, in Numbers 36, some of the heads of the families of the tribe of Mannasseh come to Moses and point out that, if a daughter inherits and then marries a man not from her paternal tribe, her land will pass from her birth-tribe's inheritance into her marriage-tribe's. So a further rule is laid down: if a daughter inherits land, she must marry someone within her father's tribe. (The daughters of Zelophehad marry the sons' of their father's brothers. There is no indication that this was not their choice.)

Inheritance Inequality

The distribution of inherited wealth is unequal. The majority receive little while only a small number inherit larger amounts.[3]

Arguments for eliminating the disparagement of inheritance inequality include the right to property and the merit of individual allocation of capital over government wealth confiscation and redistribution. In terms of inheritance inequality, some economists and sociologists focus on the inter generational transmission of income or wealth which is said to have a direct impact on one's mobility (or immobility) and class position in society. Nations differ on the political structure and policy options that govern the transfer of wealth.[4]

According to the American federal government statistics compiled by Mark Zandi, currently of "Moody's", back in 1985, the average inheritance was $39,000. In subsequent years, the overall amount of total annual inheritance was more than doubled, reaching nearly $200 billion. By 2050, there is an estimated $25 trillion average inheritance transmitted across generations.[5] Some researchers have attributed this rise to the baby boomer generation. Historically, the baby boomers were the largest influx of children conceived after WW2. For this reason, Thomas Shapiro suggests that this generation "is in the midst of benefiting from the greatest inheritance of wealth in history."[6]

Inheritance and Race

Inheritances are transfers of the unconsumed material accumulations of previous generations. Inheritances therefore take on a special meaning with respect to black and white Americans: they directly link the disadvantaged economic position and prospects of today's blacks to the disadvantaged positions and outright slavery of their ancestors.[7]

Depending on one's race, one inherits an inevitable amount of privilege or disadvantage at the time of their birth. A number of possible explanations for this gap have been suggested, particularly differences in income and various socio-economic characteristics between black and white households.[8] Research reveals that race could be serving as a proxy for other, more fundamental, determinants of differences in inheritance. Among the findings, it was stated that a "father's education and variables indicating the economic conditions of childhood were the most important in predicting the size of inheritances."[9] Based on samples of households in 1976 and 1989, researchers found that white households are at least twice as likely to receive an inheritance (than black households). White households are almost three times as likely to expect to receive an inheritance in the future. Hence, controlling for other factors, these researchers found that race is important in explaining whether or not a household has received an inheritance and the size of the inheritance.[10]

Whites average both better health and inheritance than minority groups in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics are disadvantaged with respect to financial and human capital resources, more specifically, lower educational attainment, income, inheritances, and great concentrations in lower-skilled occupations.[11] Additionally, due to employment discrimination and residential segregation, minority households "have historically been denied the opportunity to accumulate wealth" and thus, acquire inheritance.[5]

Inheritance and Social Stratification

Inheritance inequality has a significant effect on stratification. Inheritance is an integral component of family, economic, and legal institutions, and a basic mechanism of class stratification. It also affects the distribution of wealth at the societal level. The total cumulative effect of inheritance on stratification outcomes takes three forms. The first form of inheritance is the inheritance of cultural capital (i.e. linguistic styles, higher status social circles, and aesthetic preferences).[12] The second form of inheritance is through familial interventions in the form of inter vivos transfers (i.e. gifts between the living), especially at crucial junctures in the life courses. Examples include during a child's milestone stages, such as going to college, getting married, getting a job, and purchasing a home.[12] The third form of inheritance is the transfers of bulk estates at the time of death of the testators, thus resulting in significant economic advantage accruing to children during their adult years.[13] The origin of the stability of inequalities is material (personal possessions one is able to obtain) and is also cultural, rooted either in varying child-rearing practices that are geared to socialization according to social class and economic position. Child-rearing practices among those who inherit wealth may center around favoring some groups at the expense of others at the bottom of the social hierarchy.[14]

Sociological and Economic Effects of Inheritance Inequality

The degree to which economic status and inheritance is transmitted across generations determines one's life chances in society. Although many have linked one's social origins and educational attainment to life chances and opportunities, education cannot serve as the most influential predictor of economic mobility. In fact, children of well-off parents generally receive better schooling and benefit from material, cultural, and genetic inheritances.[15] Likewise, schooling attainment is often persistent across generations and families with higher amounts of inheritance are able to acquire and transmit higher amounts of human capital. Lower amounts of human capital and inheritance can perpetuate inequality in the housing market and higher education. Research reveals that inheritance plays an important role in the accumulation of housing wealth. Those who receive an inheritance are more likely to own a home than those who do not regardless of the size of the inheritance.[16]

Oftentimes, minorities and individuals from socially disadvantaged backgrounds receive less inheritance and wealth. As a result, minorities are more likely to rent homes or live in poorer neighborhoods, as well as achieve lower educational attainment compared whites in America. Individuals with a substantial amount of wealth and inheritance often intermarry with others of the same social class to protect their wealth and ensure the continuous transmission of inheritance across generations; thus perpetuating a cycle of privilege. For this reason, it can even be argued that one's inheritance places them in a specific social class position that requires a level of participation in certain activities that promote the oppression of lower-class individuals in terms of the social hierarchy and system of stratification.

Nations with the highest income and wealth inequalities often have the highest rates of homicide and disease (such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension). A New York Times article reveals that the U.S. is the world's wealthiest nation, but "ranks 29th in life expectancy, right behind Jordan and Bosnia." This is highly attributed to the significant gap of inheritance inequality in the country.[17] For this reason, it is clear that when social and economic inequalities centered on inheritance are perpetuated by major social institutions such as family, education, religion, etc., these differing life opportunities are transmitted from each generation. As a result, this inequality becomes part of the overall social structure.[18]


Many states have inheritance taxes or death duties, under which a portion of any estate goes to the government.

See also


  1. ^ A decedent is a person who owned the property before this death. The term decedent should not be confused with the term descendant.
  2. ^ a b C.E. Bosworth et al, ed (1993). "Mīrāth". Encylopaedia of Islam. 7 (second ed.). Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-09419-9. 
  3. ^ Davies, James B. "The Relative Impact of Inheritance and Other Factors on Economic Inequality". The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 97, No. 3, pp. 471
  4. ^ Angel, Jacqueline L. Inheritance in Contemporary America: The Social Dimensions of Giving across Generations. p. 35
  5. ^ a b Marable, Manning. "Letter From America: Inheritance, Wealth and Race." Google
  6. ^ Shapiro, Thomas M. The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 5
  7. ^ Avery, Robert; Rendall, Michael S. "Lifetime Inheritances of Three Generations of Whites and Blacks", The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 107, No. 5 pp. 1300
  8. ^ Menchik, Paul L., Jianakoplos, Nancy A. "Black-White Wealth Inequality: Is Inheritance the Reason?" Economic Inquiry. Volume XXXV, April 1997, p. 428
  9. ^ Menchik, Paul L., Jianakoplos, Nancy A. "Black-White Wealth Inequality: Is Inheritance the Reason?" Economic Inquiry. Volume XXXV, April 1997, p. 432
  10. ^ Menchik, Paul L., Jianakoplos, Nancy A. Black-White Wealth Inequality: Is Inheritance the Reason? Economic Inquiry. Volume XXXV, April 1997, p. 441
  11. ^ Flippen, Chenoa A. "Racial and Ethnic Inequality in Homeownership and Housing Equity." The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 42, No. 2 p. 129
  12. ^ a b (Edited By) Miller, Robert K., McNamee, Stephen J. Inheritance and Wealth in America. p. 2
  13. ^ (Edited By) Miller, Robert K., McNamee, Stephen J. Inheritance and Wealth in America. p. 4
  14. ^ Clignet, Remi. Death, Deeds, and Descendants: Inheritance in Modern America. p. 3
  15. ^ Bowles, Samuel; Gintis, Herbert, "The Inheritance of Inequality." Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 16, No. 3, 2002, p. 4
  16. ^ Flippen, Chenoa A. "Racial and Ethnic Inequality in Homeownership and Housing Equity." The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 42, No. 2 p. 134
  17. ^ Dubner, Stephen. "How Big of a Deal Is Income Inequality? A Guest Post". The New York Times. August 27, 2008.
  18. ^ Rokicka, Ewa. "Local policy targeted at reducing inheritance of inequalities in European countries." May 2006. (Polish)

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • inheritance — in·her·i·tance /in her ə təns/ n 1: the act of inheriting: as a: the acquisition of real or personal property under the laws of intestacy or sometimes by will b: the succession upon the death of an owner either by will or by operation of law to… …   Law dictionary

  • Inheritance — In*her it*ance, n. [Cf. OF. enheritance.] [1913 Webster] 1. The act or state of inheriting; as, the inheritance of an estate; the inheritance of mental or physical qualities. [1913 Webster] 2. That which is or may be inherited; that which is… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • inheritance — in‧her‧i‧tance [ɪnˈhertns] noun [countable, uncountable] LAW money, property, or other things that become yours after someone has died: • people who suddenly have large lump sums to invest, perhaps from an inheritance * * * inheritance UK US… …   Financial and business terms

  • Inheritance —   Auteur Christopher Paolini Genre Fantasy Version originale Titre original Inheritance Éditeur original …   Wikipédia en Français

  • inheritance — [in her′i təns] n. [ME inheritauns < Anglo Fr & OFr enheritance] 1. the action of inheriting 2. something inherited or to be inherited; legacy; bequest 3. ownership by virtue of birthright; right to inherit 4. anything received as if by… …   English World dictionary

  • inheritance — inheritance. См. наследование. (Источник: «Англо русский толковый словарь генетических терминов». Арефьев В.А., Лисовенко Л.А., Москва: Изд во ВНИРО, 1995 г.) …   Молекулярная биология и генетика. Толковый словарь.

  • Inheritance — (engl., spr. Inherritänns), Erblehen, Erbgut. Inheritor, Erbe …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Inheritance — (engl. –änß), Erbgut; Inheritor, Erbe …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • Inheritance —   [engl.], Vererbung …   Universal-Lexikon

  • inheritance — late 14c., enheritaunce fact of receiving by hereditary succession; early 15c. as that which is inherited, from Anglo Fr. enheritance, O.Fr. enheritaunce, from enheriter (see INHERIT (Cf. inherit)). Heritance act of inheriting is from mid 15c …   Etymology dictionary

  • inheritance — *heritage, patrimony, birthright …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

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