For most of human history death occurred at a much younger average age than it does today. Because life was so much more fragile in ancient cultures, it isn’t much of a surprise to learn that the oldest legal codes of which we are aware contain some fairly detailed inheritance laws. The ancient Sumerians established the first known written laws more than 4000 years ago, many of which explained how a person’s property should pass after that person dies.
In the history of our own country, most of our early inheritance laws trace back to the laws the first European settlers brought with them. When Puritan settlers came to the New World, they brought the complicated laws of the British Empire. Those laws, today often referred to as British common law, still play an important role in many of our basic inheritance and estate planning legal concepts.
However, early settlers to the United States also changed many of these laws, especially after separation from the British Empire following the Revolutionary war. Over the subsequent centuries, American inheritance law went through numerous different changes. Today, though it maintains many similarities with modern British law, there are significant differences.
However, inheritance laws in general have, according to some, played a decreasingly significant role in our societies. As people have begun to live much longer, the amount of wealth they have to transfer has, in many situations, decreased considerably. As we age and end up spending much of our wealth in our later years, the amount that parents pass down to subsequent generations has, on average, become less significant.