What is Inheritance Law?

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  • Written By: Renee Booker
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 21 January 2020
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Inheritance law is the area of the law that deals with how a decedent's estate will be distributed or passed down to heirs upon his or her death. Not only will inheritance law vary by country, but it may also vary by states within a country or by religions within a country. In some jurisdictions, these laws take the place of a last will and testament, while in others they only determine the division of assets in the absence of a will.

In the United States, when a decedent dies, his or her estate generally goes through a legal process known as probate. During probate, the decedent's last will and testament is admitted to the court for review. If the decedent did not leave a will then the inheritance law of the state where the decedent died will apply and the estate will pass to the heirs through intestate succession. Intestate succession refers to the legal rules that determine who will receive the decedent's assets and what percentage they will receive.


U.S. inheritance laws do not distinguish between male and female heirs. For instance, if the intestate succession laws of the state where the decedent died dictate that the estate shall pass to the decedent's children, then all children inherit equal shares. Of course, the decedent may give a larger share to a male or female child in a will if he or she chooses to do so. Absent a will, however, all heirs are treated equal regardless of gender.

International inheritance law is often predicated on religious beliefs or doctrines. As such, inheritance laws in countries outside the United States may give preference to male heirs or exclude females from inheriting altogether. Muslim laws of inheritance traditionally excluded females from inheriting at all. In more recent times, Muslim inheritance law has evolved to allow females to inherit, but male heirs are often given two shares for every one share given to a female. In India, under the Indian Succession Act of 1925, a daughter is only entitled to one-fourth of the son's share of any inheritance.

Efforts are being made in some countries to change the practice of favoring male heirs over their female counterparts. The Hindu Succession Amendment Act of 1985 is one such example. Under the Act, female heirs are now given equal treatment in the absence of a will and inherit in equal shares to their male counterparts.


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Post 5

"Muslim laws of inheritance traditionally excluded females from inheriting at all."

My comment on the above statement is that this is not true in Shariah. If a deceased left, for example, two daughters, father and mother, the two daughters deserve two-third and the rest is for his father and mother. If one daughter she deserves one-half.

Post 4

@jmc88 - You are correct in your assumption. A place like India still has the caste system, which sets up who will marry who, many years down the road. They also see the female as being a traditional, domestic housewife. Due to traditions and religion, this also favors the male heirs in inheritance laws.

However, due to the fact that India has become more modernized and developed in recent years, they have began to adopt some inheritance laws, which do allow female heirs to receive some percentage, but never as much as the male heirs.

Inheritance laws will continue to develop over time and give favor women more. However, in many parts of the world it will never happen in countries that follow tradition in regards to gender roles.

Post 3

People need to realize how little inheritance laws have changed on a worldwide scale. In places like Africa and Asia, the inheritance laws recognize only male heirs and female heirs only to a certain extent, if at all. In many places in Africa, which are not modernized or developed, they still recognize the eldest male heir, as he is seen as the one who takes over the patriarch role for the entire family. From there he becomes the one who is in charge of taking care of his siblings.

Giving women more rights, in regards to inheritance laws, is definitely a western idea and has only recently become an adopted idea in places such as the Middle East and places such as India.

Post 2

@matthewc23 - I agree there probably is a correlation between how developed a country is and their inheritance laws to a certain degree. If you look at some countries inheritance laws, they do not, in the least, favor women. However, this could be due to a number of factors, such as religion, which the article mentions.

In a lot of countries around the world, women are still seen as being in their traditional roles, but this is due to their religion and not because they are not modernized or developed. Saudi Arabia is a good example of this, as they see women in their traditional roles and still utilize the traditional ways concerning inheritance laws.

Post 1

Inheritance laws have not change much since the Middle Ages. Back then, in Europe, it was common for the family farm to be passed down to the eldest son.

Of course, changes have occurred, such as women being included in inheritance laws, and everyone, not just oldest male heirs, being included.

As the article points out, some countries still follow old traditions and this is probably consistent with how developed or modernized the countries are.

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