Inheritance in America

Inheritance in America bookInheritance is a hot topic these days, as certain temporary tax adjustments are set to expire, reverting such items as inheritance taxes back to higher levels. People and politicians, alike, argue over what is an appropriate manner for distributing the wealth of an individual to their heirs, named or biological. How much should the government take? Even when there are established wills, the courts are often involved to dispute the validity and/or perceived correctness of financial and estate dispersal. Inheritance issues are not new. Examining these issues begs the question, “How has inheritance affected the lives of our ancestors; thus, affecting our own lives and, perhaps, even the country as a whole?”

Before 1982, no one had ever really tried to answer these questions. Then, a team of experts worked together to find an answer. Answers to questions on the transmittal of wealth, capitalism, family notions on money and the idea of providing for future generations are often assumed based on current opinions, but do they hold up historically? Experts Carol Shammas, a Professor of History and Women’s Studies, University of California-Riverside; Marylynn Salmon, Reasearh Associate, History Department, Smith College; and Michel Dahlin, Associate Professor of History and Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Colorado System, worked together to find the historical answers to these questions.

The published results of their study is Inheritance in America: From Colonial Times to the Present. This study crosses the academic fields of social, family, and economic history, examining customs and patterns of inheritance among families. “The authors discuss the first intestacy statutes, analyze the testamentary behavior of colonial wealthholders, and consider the impact of the Revolution.”

Other areas examined in the study, and covered in these results, include the effect on inheritance as women’s roles and rights have changed over time; plus, long-term trends in charity, women’s control of finances, and the use of dynastic devices. Questions on inheritance, and political movements to change and reform tax laws can often be traced to a simple fact that “the bulk of household wealth in America, perhaps as much as 80 percent of it, is derived from inheritance, not labor force participation.” Birth, not effort, is the largest indicator of future wealth in a country that prides itself on capitalistic opportunity.

Genealogists will find this study an enlightening. Answers found in this historical review of wealth could easily shed light on family histories which details changes in financial standings but lack the historical perspective in which to place them. Now, answers can be found and correlated through this review on Inheritance in America.

Note: “Appendix B is of special interest, as it covers the Inheritance Laws in place in the United States in 1890, is in table-form, and printed alphabetically by state.”


Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables



The History of Inheritance in America

Part One: Inheritance under Family Capitalism

Chapter One: English Inheritance Law and Its Transfer to the Colonies

Chapter Two: Colonial Testamentary Practice and Family Capitalism

Chapter Three: Tension in the System: Changes and Attempted Changes in Postrevolutionary Inheritance Law

Part Two: Family, Property, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism

Chapter Four: Inheritance Law and the Rights of Women and Children in the Nineteenth Century

Chapter Five: Testamentary Behavior in the 1790s and 1890s

Part Three: State Capitalism and Inheritance Today

Chapter Six: The Federal Estate Tax and Inheritance

Chapter Seven: Demographic Change, Old-Age Policy, and the Family

Chapter Eight: Inheritance Law and the Unfinished Revolution

Chapter Nine: Testamentary Behavior in the Late Twentieth Century


Inheritance, the Family, and Capitalism


A: Samples of Probate Records from Bucks county, Pennsylvania, and Los Angles County, California

B: Inheritance Laws 1890

C: Inheritance Laws 1982




Order Inheritance in America: From Colonial Times to the Present from Family Roots Publishing: Price: $24.95.

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