EVERY YEAR, thousands and thousands of wills are probated. To be sure, many people die without leaving any money behind; and many others die without a will. In Ward and Beuscher's study of Wisconsin deaths and probates, from 1929 to 1944, only 42% of the people who died had probate estates. And of those who did, only 47% had made out a will.1 Since then, the percentage of testate estates has gone up. In San Bernardino, California, in 1964, about two-thirds of the estates were testate, one-third intestate.2 In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1979, 59% of the deaths produced an estate and 36% of the decedents left a will; there was a will in a majority of the estates that actually went through probate.3
For many people, then, the will was and is a significant document. But even though more people who die have wills, the actual significance of wills has been going down. And this is true even though the country is incomparably richer than it was, say, 150 years ago; there is more wealth, and there are more wealthy people. The will once had a virtual monopoly over gifts at death. This is no longer the case. The rise of will substitutes has, in turn, affected the law of wills itself. This is probably a key reason why the law of wills has become less formal and formalistic. After all, now one can draw up a document that looks like a
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Publication information: Book title: Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts, and Inheritance Law. Contributors: Lawrence M. Friedman - Author. Publisher: Stanford Law Books. Place of publication: Stanford, CA. Publication year: 2009. Page number: 100.
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