This report summarizes inheritance law in the 19th and 20th centuries in France, Germany, and the United States. French law of the period reflected the egalitarian system of inheritance brought about by the French Revolution, even after reforms instituted by the Napoleonic Code. Nineteenth-century German law was splintered into territorial regimes characterized by differentiated succession rules for the nobility versus the peasantry—a distinction that continued to some extent even after the unified German Civil Code became effective in 1900. Early inheritance law in the United States, premised on English law, was a matter of state law (as it is today) and thus varied, but during the period in question became much more egalitarian with regard to the inheritance rights of women.
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Inheritance Laws in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Inheritance law in 19th- and 20th-century France was largely a product of the French Revolution. Succession laws before the Revolution were extremely diverse, complicated, and inequitable. The revolutionaries created a greatly simplified and very egalitarian inheritance system. The Napoleonic Code brought reforms to the revolutionary laws, but largely respected the same basic principles. Beyond that point, French inheritance laws remained fundamentally the same, with only a few reforms aimed principally at improving the situations of surviving spouses and illegitimate children.
During the nineteenth century, German inheritance law was splintered into many territorial regimes that combined Germanic principles with the Roman law, as it was received in Germany from the 16th century onward. Throughout 19th century, special succession regimes for the nobility and for the peasantry were in effect. Of these, some German state laws on the succession of farms by the entirety are still in effect today. Current German inheritance law was enacted in the Civil Code of 1896. It is based on classical Roman law while also containing some institutions of Germanic origin.
Inheritance in the United States is generally a matter of state law. During the colonial period, the colonies adopted English inheritance law. Following independence, most states enacted statutes that codified common law with some modifications to English law and procedure. In the 19th century, with westward expansion, some territories entered the union as community-property states, adopting aspects of civil law. Most states adopted legislation giving married women control over and power to devise property they had inherited. Over the course of the 20th century, widows came to be treated more equally in inheritance compared to widowers, and spouses came to be treated more favorably in intestacy compared to children.
English Inheritance Laws in the 19th and 20th Centuries: A Bibliography
This bibliography contains a list of the resources available at the Library of Congress on inheritance laws in England during the 19th and 20th centuries. Links are provided to the Library of Congress catalog record.
Last Updated: 07/24/2020