Inheritance Rights – They All Started With The Magna Carta

Inheritance Rights – They All Started With The Magna Carta

Often my Minnesota clients ask why some of the procedures in probate and inheritance matters seem complicated and sometimes old fashioned.

The truth of the matter is that many of these procedures follow English Common Law precedents dating from the thirteenth century.

You have probably heard of the Magna Carta or “Great Charter” that the English barons got King John to sign in the year 1215. When we were in school, we were taught that the motivation of the English nobles was a high-minded demand for trial by jury, due process of law, representative government and other civil rights now contained in our Constitution.

Not so.

The demands for civil rights were largely an afterthought to what the nobles were really after: namely, inheritance rights.

To understand what the Magna Carta was really all about, we need to turn back the calendar to the year 1215.

First of all, the lifespan for most people was truly “nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes was later to say. Life expectancy was about 39 years and many men would never survive to see their children grow up.

Likewise women had short life expectancy especially since childbirth was often fatal. Moreover women had few legal rights except through their husbands or fathers. As a result, there were many widows and orphans in the 1200’s in England.

King John was constantly short of money. To get funds, he would often take over the estates and inheritances of the families of deceased barons.

The barons understandably wanted to preserve their family estates and they didn’t want the king interfering with their families. Some of the barons had been denied their inheritances from their fathers because of King John. Other barons were afraid that their wives and children would be left destitute if King John’s seizure of estates wasn’t stopped.

As a result, they rebelled against King John and forced him to sign the Magna Carta on Runnymede field near Oxford on June 15, 1215.

The Magna Carta contains 63 sections. After the introduction, the next seven sections all deal with inheritance and estate issues. That certainly showed what the barons considered most important. Overall, 16 sections of the Magna Carta deal with family estate and inheritance rights. The civil rights sections don’t appear until later in the document so those rights were obviously less urgent to the barons.

So next time you wonder about probate, estate or inheritance procedures, you’ll understand why I begin with: “Well, it all started with the Magna Carta.”

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