ONLY LIVING PEOPLE can “own” something. Once a person dies, ownership lapses, and the goods and assets pass into other hands. There are several ways in which society can deal with the property of a dead person. One way would be to cut off any rights the dead person might have had and leave the asset up for grabs. Or the state could confiscate the property and use it for whatever purposes it chooses. Or, to mention a third possibility, legal rules could dictate what becomes of the property—who gets what, and in what proportions. Fourth, we could let the dead person decide and honor whatever requests or arrangements he or she might have made.
In fact, our system has elements of all four, though the last two probably dominate. Leaving things “up for grabs” is never the rule for property. But this is something that follows from the way our society defines property. Anything that, at death, is up for grabs is simply not classified as property at all. Property in general is not an easy concept to define. Every society has its own conception of property. Willard Hurst defined property as the “legitimate power to initiate decisions on the use of economic assets.”1 This definition is as good as any. But no definition covers all societies at all times. To take a simple example: if the