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 well as parts of France. It often applied to farmland, but sometimes included other types of land in addition to personal property.

This system is very rare today. On the contrary, primogeniture, which means inheritance by a firstborn son, is slightly more common today. Historically, primogeniture has been the most prevalent inheritance system.

Key Takeaways

  • Traditional inheritance rules granted the sons of a father (rather than the daughters) to be the primary beneficiary of his property upon death.
  • Ultimogeniture, or junior right, was a system whereby the last son to be born became the primary beneficiary.
  • Ultimogeniture was desirable for peasant or agricultural classes because it helped ensure that older children remained on the farm to work.
  • Ultimogeniture can be contrasted with the system of primogeniture, a method of inheritance favored by the elite classes whereby the firstborn son was the sole heir.

Understanding Ultimogeniture

Ultimogeniture, primogeniture and other forms of traditional inheritance are very rare in modern society. Most developed countries rely on trusts and wills that explicitly state the desires of the decedent. However, in the past, 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 the past, largely due to war and the spread of 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 remain on the farm, at least until they became old enough to marry. This kept a captive workforce and provided enough labor to support the patriarch’s widow.

While ultimogentiure kept sons on the farm, merchant families and nobility didn't have the same need for physical labor. Instead, they tended to use primogeniture, which grants the right of succession to the firstborn son. Primogeniture was also the primary method for establishing royal lineages and naming new kings.

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

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 workforce, 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 and a will is important. A will stipulates the bequest of assets to heirs, as well as the settlement of estate taxes. The presence of a will eliminates any chance of intestacy, where inheritance decisions end up in the hands of a probate court. In cases of intestacy, the property goes to a surviving spouse first, then to any children, then to extended family and descendants. However, if no family can be found, the property typically reverts to the state. Intestacy can be avoided by creating a will. With the help of an attorney experienced in estate law, a will can be set up very inexpensively.

In addition to wills, some wealthier families set up trusts, which grant 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.