Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts, and Inheritance Law

By Lawrence M. Friedman | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 3
THE LAST WILL AND
TESTAMENT

LAW AND CUSTOM allow people many ways to pass on their property. One of the simplest ways, of course, is to give most or all of it away while still alive. A rich father can make out checks to his children; or he can give them money in more complicated ways, for example, by setting up a trust. (In a later chapter, we will take a closer look at trusts.)

Most people, however, hold on to their money, or some of it. They pass on their property at death, and many of them do so through a document called a will. As we will see, the importance of the will has declined somewhat in recent times. But the will is still a very common, fundamental, and genuinely popular document.


THE FORMAL WRITTEN WILL

In modern colloquial English, a will is a document that disposes of the maker's property at death. No longer are there separate documents for real property and personal property; the two are combined and, while old-fashioned lawyers still pin on the label “Last Will and Testament,” nowadays most of us simply call it a “will.”

The ordinary will, the most common kind, and the kind that is recognized

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