A brief history of wills

The idea of a will seems straightforward. It gives you the legal right to pass on your property and possessions to anyone you like. Perhaps surprisingly, though, people haven’t always enjoyed this freedom.

The invention of wills is often credited to a statesman called Solon, who lived in Ancient Greece around 600 years before the birth of Christ. Solon’s law let people choose who to leave their estates to, instead of everything going automatically to family members.

There were a few restrictions, though. You had to be a citizen of Athens. It didn’t apply to women, slaves, foreigners, or anyone who was adopted. And if you had sons – too bad. They’d automatically inherit your estate anyway.

If instead, you had daughters, you had the choice of bequeathing your assets to men other than family members. The catch was that these men were then obliged to marry your daughters, thus ensuring that wealth always stayed in the family.

Roman wills

The concept of wills was further developed by the Romans, who were also keen to keep things in the family. If you omitted a child from your will without giving a good reason, it could be considered a dereliction of duty and your will simply ignored.

One way around this was to leave a pittance to your offspring, as this was proof that you truly were thinking straight at the time you made your will.

Early Roman wills were spoken aloud in the presence of seven witnesses. However, this oral method relied on witnesses accurately remembering what they’d heard years later, and so was eventually replaced by written wills.

Statute of Wills

In England, a major development of wills concerned property rights. In 1540, during the reign of King Henry VIII, an Act of Parliament called the Statute of Wills enabled individuals to decide who would inherit their land.

Previously, land could only be passed to surviving relatives. If there were none, it would automatically go to the crown. Landowners were understandably unhappy with this state of affairs, and the Statute of Wills was seen as a compromise with the king.

The Statute of Wills was superseded by the Wills Act of 1837. This unified previous legislation governing land and property with rules concerned with personal possessions.

Rules of Intestacy

Many of the rules introduced in the 1837 Act remain valid today. However, a later Act of Parliament was introduced to govern what happens to people who die without a will, ie intestate. The Administration of Estates Act was introduced in 1925 – less than a quarter of a century after the end of the Victorian era. It’s fair to say that public morals then were very different to what they are today.

It’s probably not too surprising that the Rules of Intestacy outlined in the Act aren’t favourable towards unmarried people who live together. Even now, if you die without a will your estate will go to your blood relatives.

The Rules of Intestacy do recognise civil partnerships as well as marriages. But if the person you share your life with is neither spouse nor civil partner, they’ll receive nothing.

What now?

The easy solution, of course, is to write them into your will! At Maplebrook Wills, we specialise in affordable wills and we’ll even visit your home to take care of the paperwork.

When all’s said and done, we’re in an enviable position compared to our ancestors. Unlike them, we can leave our hard-earned possessions to those we truly love.