Inheritance (Sociology)

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A Rake's Progress, Plate 1: The Young Heir Takes Possession Of The Miser's Effects. William Hogarth, 1735
This article is concerned with the inheritance of physical and monetary items as well as social heritage. For other uses, see Inheritance.

Inheritance is the practice of passing on property, titles, debts, and obligations upon the death of an individual. It has long played an extremely important role in human societies, and a variety of Inheritance laws have been developed to regulate the process. A less common—but no less important—use of the term has to do with the notion that, as human beings, we receive an inheritance at birth from our family, society, culture, nation, and world. This second kind is cultural or social inheritance, and is also known as heritage.

Although societies have made efforts to control inheritance, ultimately it is a natural process. Individuals have the right to bequeath possessions and heritage to their children, who inherit not only property and traditions but also responsibility for their use.

Inheritance Law

Both anthropology and sociology have made detailed studies on the way that economic inheritance is most commonly understood. Laws governing the passing of one's property and estate to others upon reaching death have been an integral part of many societies and cultures for hundreds and thousands of years. Inheritance laws, also known as laws of succession, address questions such as who should inherit property, whether one has the authority to designate who receives the inheritance through the use of a will or trust, whether one's property can, or must, be divided among several individuals or pass undivided to a single heir, what happens to property when someone dies without having any heirs, and so forth.

Forms of succession

Many cultures feature patrilineal succession, also known as gavelkind, where only male children can inherit. Some also employ matrilineal succession, only passing property along the female line. Even more radical than the patrilineal succession is the practice of "primogeniture," whereby all property goes to the eldest child, or often the eldest son (the first-born). Conversely, there are also systems where everything is left to the youngest child. Most states employ partible inheritance, whereby every child inherits (usually equally). The following are some historical examples of laws regarding inheritance in different cultures:

  • In the eighteenth century B.C.E., the Hammurabi code allowed for succession to occur with and without the use of a will.
  • In sixth-century B.C.E. Greece, property was passed on through wills.
  • In the fifth century B.C.E., the "Twelve Tables," from Roman law, included statutes pertaining to inheritance with and without the use of a will.
  • Among ancient Israelites, the eldest son received twice as much as the other sons.
  • In feudal England, common people had no right to inherit property.
  • In Swedish culture, beginning from the thirteenth century and up until the nineteenth century, a son inherited twice as much as his sister. This rule was introduced by Regent Birger Jarl, and it was regarded as an improvement in its era, since daughters were previously usually left completely without.
  • The Islamic law of inheritance inhibited capital accumulation until reforms initiated in the nineteenth century.
  • In China, equal division of family property among the descendants has been considered the rule.

Western legal systems have come to regard succession to property by relatives of the deceased as normal. Succession by the wider community happens only when no relatives can be found and when the deceased has made no other disposition of his property. Employing differing forms of succession affects 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, providing greater opportunities to more individuals.

Most countries have inheritance laws pertaining to bequeathing the assets or obligations, which are stipulated in a will, for distribution upon one's death. Arrangements can also be made to transfer assets at a later time to others, known as the "beneficiaries," by establishing a trust in which a "trustee" is bound to exercise legal control over the assets for the benefit of the heir(s) until they satisfy certain conditions, such as attain a certain age or marry. Many modern states have inheritance taxes, whereby a portion of any estate goes to the government, though the government technically is not an heir.

Inheritance law often requires that specific steps must be followed when a person dies leaving a will. For example, the executor of the estate has to identify and collect all the deceased’s assets. Creditors must be notified and all claims be paid. Estate tax, taxation of the property transferred at death, is also common. The legal process of settling the estate of a deceased person is called probate.


Intestacy refers to the condition of the estate of a person, owning property greater than the sum of his or her enforceable debts and funeral expenses, who died without having made a valid will or other binding declaration; alternatively where such a will or declaration has been made, but only applies to part of the estate, the remaining estate forms the "Intestate Estate."

In most contemporary common law jurisdictions, the law of intestacy is patterned after the common law of descent. Property goes first to a spouse, then to children and their descendants; if there are no descendants, the rule sends you back up the family tree to the parents, the siblings, the siblings' descendants, the grandparents, the parents' siblings, and the parents' siblings' descendants, and sometimes further to the more remote degrees of kinship. The operation of these laws varies from one jurisdiction to another.

If a person dies intestate with no identifiable heirs, the person's estate generally goes to the government.

Criticism of inheritance

The ability to bequeath property to one's children or other heirs upon one's death has been criticized as incompatible with modern views of human equality, since it makes it possible for a few to amass significant amounts of wealth without having to work or make a contribution to the society and world. In this sense, inheritance has for centuries become a means of perpetuating social injustice, which is the result of human greed and the absence of conscience in the development of economic systems, including capitalism. However, in defense of inheritance, denying the possibility of handing down the fruits of one's labors to one's descendants reduces the incentive for hard work, and thus risks reducing economic growth. Like money itself, the practice of inheritance is neither good nor evil, but rather subject to the goodness or greed of human beings who have been influenced by an all-too-often selfish and uncaring society. Just as biological features, talents, or even skills learned from one's parents are inherited without equality or state control, inheritance of the physical fruits of one's parents' labors cannot be equalized by legislation.

Nevertheless, to reduce inequality in the distribution of wealth, inheritance laws have been enacted to limit the amount of property that may be inherited, either by compulsory partition of the property, as in the laws of France and Germany, or by employing increasing levels of inheritance tax, as in Great Britain and the United States. Laws of intestacy also contribute to redistribution of wealth to the community if a person dies without a will and without any relatives who claim right of succession.

Cultural Inheritance

Inheritance can also refer to the circumstances, cultural practices, and surroundings into which a human being is born. This can include customs, beliefs, traditions, and values. Each person’s cultural inheritance varies greatly depending upon, among others, the era, the geographical location, as well as the socio-economic situation of one’s family. The era, for example, during which a person is born and raised, carries a unique “merit of the age,” which can influence the events in a person’s life. Also, whether one is born in an eastern or western culture usually influences a person's upbringing and worldview.

While the circumstances at one's birth and the social and cultural heritage of one's youth may seem to be absolutely determinant in shaping the quality, opportunities, and direction of a person’s life, they are not. There are numerous examples of individuals and families who charted a course for themselves, or for the sake of others, which could not have been imagined based upon their social or cultural inheritance alone. Individuals who overcame obstacles on the path from "rags to riches" include famous examples such as Genghis Khan and Andrew Carnegie. Well known examples of "ordinary" people eventually rising to become admired throughout the world, largely due to an extraordinary commitment of service and dedication to humanity, include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II, as well as figures such as Jesus, Muhammad, and Abraham.

Each person has their own way of integrating their cultural inheritance into their life, selectively embracing certain aspects and rejecting or ignoring others. This process is ongoing and can occur consciously or unconsciously. Often, people live an entire life never examining the nature of this inheritance, while others discover ways to improve or enhance the quality of their life by inventing or discovering new, often unconventional, paradigms for living.


Main article: Socialization

Socialization is the process whereby people acquire a social identity and learn the way of life within their society. It is essentially a process of inheriting values. Socialization is classified into two types:

  1. primary socialization—of the young child in a family through parents
  2. secondary socialization—through schools, religious institutions, friends, mass media, etc.

At certain times in a person's life, one may experience "desocialization" and "resocialization," whereby the previously accepted values and behaviors are adjusted to reflect a changed social milieu. Religious conversion and joining the military are situations which may involve a process of desocialization and resocialization.

Sometimes resocialization occurs when an individual or a group discovers ways to breakthrough personal or social limitations, or by overcoming barriers, which can include the "status quo." The status quo is understood as the current, socially accepted norms for a society, based upon formal and informal collective agreement. Through the ages, the biggest drawback with the status quo is that, when unexamined, it tends to lead people to live selfishly, both individually and collectively, unless the given society happens to foster universal values and encourages living for the sake of others.

The status quo can be very exclusionary toward anything which is not considered "normal" or "acceptable" by the society, such as new concepts which challenge established habits, outdated beliefs, and obsolete traditions. Progress often depends upon those willing or courageous enough to challenge the status quo for the sake of the greater good. Historically, civil disobedience has proven to be one of the most effective and noble means for creating social change. Religious leaders usually encourage prayer, fasting, self-sacrifice, education, service, and social-action as effective methods for overcoming the status quo and bringing about personal and social transformation.

Inheritance and Responsibility

Inheritance can be understood as bequeathing the fruits of one's life from one generation to the next. This is a fundamental expression of mutual human devotion between parents and their offspring. For parents, inheritance is the opportunity of leaving a legacy to their children. From the viewpoint of the descendant (child) there is an implicit responsibility and obligation to honor the parents for their sacrifice and investment of life, love, and lineage. The filial piety of the children can be expressed by carrying on family traditions, maintaining the estate (monetary and material), caring for the well-being of the clan, and even through fulfilling dreams of accomplishment which the parents themselves could not carry out.

Above and beyond material inheritance, parents share a responsibility to invest and sacrifice for the happiness and well-being of future generations. This sacrifice may involve imparting wisdom, guidance, and values to their children and grandchildren. Whether expressed formally or informally, we all have a responsibility to contribute to the public purpose beyond our own family, extending an inheritance to the community, society, nation, and world. Naturally, descendants of such a tradition of living for the sake of others want to return dedication, sacrifice, and appreciation to their parents, ancestors, and fellow patriots for the gifts they have been given by attending and serving them, taking care of them in old age, and honoring their memory once they have passed away.

It may well be argued that the inequalities in both material and social aspects of inheritance are unfair and should be regulated in order to achieve a more egalitarian society and world. However, these types of inheritance are just as natural and difficult to control as the inheritance of biological features, such as eye or hair color, facial features, and body build. Inheritance is not requested, or even necessarily wanted; it naturally follows through lineage. However, each individual does have freedom to choose what to do with their inheritance, and the responsibility to use it for good or ill. Ultimately, the greatest improvement in human society comes when individuals take responsibility for their inheritance, whether asset or liability, and use it to benefit of all.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Atkinson, Thomas. Handbook of the Law of Wills and Other Principles of Succession: Including Intestacy and Administration of Decedents' Estates. West Academic Publishing, 1953. ISBN 978-0314283337
  • Friedman, Lawrence M. Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts, and Inheritance Law. Stanford Law Books, 2000. ISBN 978-0804762090
  • Paul, Robert A. Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society. University of Chicago Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0226240862


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