During the dawn of human history we can safely assume when someone wealthy died the next most powerful person grabbed the loot. We have Ancient Greece to thank for many of the foundations of the British system as passed on to us by our Roman and French guests.
The Ancient Greek Take on the Matter
Some early Greek states decreed a deceased’s wealth belonged to their families while others allowed them to be pickier. Plutarch described how one state, Solon “permitted them to bestow their wealth on whom they pleased, esteeming friendship a stronger tie than kindred, and affection than necessity.
“And thus it put every man’s estate in the disposal of the possessor.” However not to the nth degree because the following rules applied to testators:
- They must be citizens of Athens and neither slaves nor foreigners
- They must be men over twenty years of age and not adopted
- They should have no male children or else the estate was theirs
- If they had only daughters their beneficiaries were obliged to marry them
- They should be in their right minds ‘free of dotage and mental phrenzy’
- They should not be in prison or under duress of any kind
- They should be free of the ‘charms and insinuations of a wife’
Such wills required that several witnesses place their seals on them as confirmation. Thereafter a trustee had the duty to see their wishes followed through. A testator could also declare their will before a magistrate for safety’s sake.
Plutarch relates the story of soldier, statesman and diplomat Callias, who was so fearful of ‘wicked conspiracy’ he declared his will before the entire Athens legislature. Despite that, history has it his grandson squandered his fortune. So it seems there is nothing new under the sun including probate fraud.
How the Ancient Romans Perpetuated the Family
A series of wealthy families ruled Italy under Ancient Rome. This patrician system has rolled ‘across the pond’ to the Americas, although recent exceptions may have called their own trumps.
In those days, a testator in Rome announced their unchangeable intentions in ‘non cupative wills’ before seven witnesses and these could not be changed. However, manipulative vested interests eventually proved the wisdom of writing things down so there was no confusion.
The underlying intention was perpetuating the family in Ancient Rome. The ‘pater familias’, or father of the family had to choose ‘a person of breed’ to maintain family traditions. Succession outside the natural bloodline was bad form unless all relatives had waived their rights.
Therefore, Roman law could set aside “inofficiosa wills’ that derelicted the family duty. That said, there was an easy workaround. If the testator left a pittance to their third cousin twice removed (just as an example) this was proof sufficient they were of ‘sound mind’.
How These Ancient Traditions Play Out in British Probate Courts
These ancient traditions of keeping money in the family often play out in lawsuits by children, siblings and other relatives who try to apply the rules of succession over the wishes of the deceased.
Executors sometimes have a tormented duty to see a deceased’s wishes through. This applies as much today as it did in Ancient Greek and Roman times. Blood still flows thicker than water at least when it comes to money in probate, although honesty may be a different matter.