The internationally acclaimed television series Downton Abbey introduced many people to Britain’s past inheritance laws. Male primogeniture, when the first born son or closest male heir at time of death, inherits the title and the land of the deceased, is the central theme of the series. When the show first aired on PBS earlier this year, it was reported that references to inheritance laws would be cut for the North American audience as they would not understand their context. PBS denied these rumours and included an introduction explaining the principles of inheritance law in the context of the plot.
The plot of the series revolves around an Earl, who has three daughters but no sons. The Earl only has a life interest in the land and no one to directly pass his estate to as married women at the time could not personally hold title to property. The expected male heir, the Earl’s nephew, is killed and the next rightful male heir is a stranger to the family. The family comes to grips with the fact that a complete stranger will take over their home and source of wealth. To make things more complicated, the Earl’s American wife is the wealthy spouse whose own inheritance finances the estate. Her own personal wealth is tied to the land and title and whoever inherits the land and title, also inherits her wealth. The wife seeks legal guidance to attempt to break the entail (or fee tail) in an effort to preserve her fortune and independence from the land and title. Never before have fee tail, fee simple, and trusts been so interesting.
Downton Abbey takes place just before the First World War. The practice of primogeniture is no longer British law but still remains an inheritance model for Britain’s major landowning families. A new survey conducted for Country Life magazine last week, shows an emerging change in succession attitudes to relax the enforcement of the primogeniture model. Only 16% of the major landowning families surveyed strictly implement the practice of primogeniture. Other participants surveyed indicate that they would be willing to deviate from the primogeniture model and landowners increasingly show a willingness to consider female heirs and other succession plans that equally compensate children without dividing land. Downton Abbey returns next year.
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