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

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

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

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

Synopsis

The law of succession rests on a single brute fact: you can't take it with you. The stock of wealth that turns over as people die is staggeringly large. In the United States alone, some $41 trillion will pass from the dead to the living in the first half of the 21st century. But the social impact of inheritance is more than a matter of money; it is also a matter of what money buys and brings about.

Law and custom allow people many ways to pass on their property. As Friedman's enlightening social history reveals, a decline in formal rules, the ascendancy of will substitutes over classic wills, social changes like the rise of the family of affection, changing ideas of acceptable heirs, and the potential disappearance of the estate tax all play a large role in the balance of wealth. Dead Hands uncovers the tremendous social and legal importance of this rite of passage, and how it reflects changing values and priorities in American families and society.

Excerpt

On August 13, 2007, Brooke Astor, at the ripe old age of 105, died at her estate, Holly Hill, in New York. Brooke was, by all accounts, a warm and winning human being; she was often called New York City's “unofficial first lady.” She was also a very rich lady. She had inherited a massive fortune from her third husband, Vincent Astor. She became well known for her charitable activities; she gave away more than $200 million. Money, she said, “is like manure”; it “should be spread around.” in 1998 the Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded to Brooke Astor.

But in her last years, ill and demented, she sank into the dim world of those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. Her one son, Anthony Marshall, acted as her guardian, managing her affairs. His management, however, had somewhat scandalous results. Marshall's own son, Phillip, accused him of abusing the old lady and pillaging her estate. Anthony, it was claimed, lined his own pockets, while Brooke Astor slept on a couch that smelled of urine and lived on pureed peas and oatmeal; her beloved dogs, Boysie and Girlsie, were locked in a pantry. the court removed Anthony from his position of trust. the court named Annette de la Renta, an old friend, as guardian of the person—in charge of Brooke Astor's life and health; a bank became guardian of the estate—in charge of her . . .

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