WHAT IS 'Ultimogeniture'

Ultimogeniture, also known as postremogeniture, or junior right, is a system of inheritance whereby the youngest son gains possession of his deceased father's estate. Many rural areas of medieval England used this system, as did parts of France. It often applied to farmland, but sometimes included other land, as well as personal property.

This system is very rare today, and some might say all but extinct. To the contrary, primogeniture, which means inheritance by a firstborn son, is slightly more common in parts of the world.

BREAKING DOWN 'Ultimogeniture'

Ultimogeniture, primoeniture and other forms of progressive inheritance are very rare nowadays. In their place today in most developed countries are wills that explicitly state the desires of the decedent. In days of old, however, the position of birth, and the male gender, tended to determine inheritance rights.

Practicality played an important part in this system. People didn’t live as long in midieval times, largely due to the spread of Black Death and other diseases. As a result, a family patriarch often died while he still had one or more minor sons. Bequeathing land to the youngest son encouraged the older minor children to stay on the farm, at least until they became old enough to marry. This kept a captive work force and provided labor to support the patriarch’s widow.

As people eventually began to live longer, primogeniture and other social norms for inheritance slowly replaced ultimogeniture.

Ultimogeniture vs. Modern-Day Inheritance

Today, inheritance depends far less on gender and birth order. Also, because women make up a substantial percentage of the work force, children inherit both from mothers and fathers, and sometimes from two of each, considering split families and same-sex households.

No matter the family make-up, estate planning, especially having a will, is important. A will stipulates the bequest of assets to heirs, as well as the settlement of estate taxes. Having a will avoids intestacy. Usually in intestacy, property goes to a surviving spouse first, then to any children, then to extended family and descendants. However, if no family can be found, property typically reverts to the state. Because it places inheritance decisions in the hands of a probate court, intestacy is best avoided. Doing so requires only a simple will. Many are set up inexpensively with the help of an attorney experienced in estate law.

In addition to wills, some wealthier families set up trusts, which give certain legal protections to surviving spouses and children. However, trusts generally are more complicated and costly. Also, it’s important to know the trustee is in control of a trust, not the person who established the trust. For this reason, simply having a will and spelling out who gets which particular assets is preferable in some instances.

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