I. Introduction to Inheritance

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This page will highlight a few areas for analysis.

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The Importance of Inheritance

In many countries, especially in rural settings, inheritance is the main way people acquire land rights. Technically, inheritance occurs at the death of the holder of the property right. However, in many contexts, valuable gifts are made at other important life events such as marriage or coming of age—in some cases these gifts are considered a pre-mortem inheritance, an inheritance that occurs before the death of the property rights holder.  Inheritance is sometimes called succession.  Generally, in law, who inherits from the deceased’s estate is determined by will of the deceased, or if a will has not been made, by law under the provisions for "intestate” succession.

In practice, in many parts of the world, wills are not the norm. Very often, inheritance rights for women and men differ, and a woman’s right to inherit is more often dependent on her marital status or her relationship to a male.  

This framework looks at both formal law and customary law.

Common Issues

Women’s rights to inherit land are affected by cultural norms and rules.  For example, in cultures where land rights are passed down through men (patrilineal) and where women move to their husband’s home at the time of marriage (patrilocal) a woman  will rarely inherit land rights from her deceased husband because she is  considered an “outsider” to the blood line.  Likewise, she may not inherit from her father, because she is no longer considered his responsibility. 

In some places daughters receive moveable property (such as money or blankets or household items) at the time of marriage, and this moveable property (often called dowry) is considered her pre-mortem inheritance from her father—her share of the family wealth.  In practice, this can create a complicated situation for women, especially if the dowry is not an economic asset like land, because it means women  enter their marriage at an economic disadvantage to their husbands, and thus, potentially will have unequal power in that relationship. Moreover, daughters who receive dowry from their parents are unlikely to enforce their rights to inherit other property, including land, because in their mind, this would be unfairly taking from their brothers' share of the household wealth. In patrilineal and patrilocal cultures, one or more of the sons may be required to take care of his elderly parents and use the land and house he inherits to do so.

Wives often do not inherit from their husbands because their husbands’ land belongs to his family and his relatives; sometimes the land belongs to his clan or tribe. As an outsider, wives rarely can inherit ownership rights to their husbands’ land even when they have depended on that land for their livelihood for many years. Wives without sons or without any children can be vulnerable to being evicted from their homes and land.

In some cultures, fathers are more willing to go against cultural norms to ensure that their daughters are cared for, allowing them to inherit land.  In other cultures, communities are sympathetic to widows’ rights to remain on land.  It is important to keep in mind that rarely are wives’ rights and daughters’ rights seen as equal.