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Do You Know the History of the Last Will and Testament?

Are you familiar with the history of the Last Will and Testament? You might be surprised that its origin dates back thousands of years! Learn more, today.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

If you’re familiar with Estate Planning, you’ve probably heard the term “Last Will and Testament”   — the legal document that outlines what happens to your property and assets after death. Thinking about the numerous benefits of having a Will — like the ability to designate guardians for your kids and pets, protect your family from lengthy court proceedings, and ensure your last wishes are carried out — begs the question: what did people do before these documents were created?

It turns out the history of the Last Will and Testament goes back farther than you might imagine, though the process hasn’t always looked the same as it does today. Keep reading to learn more about where Wills started and how they have evolved over time. We’ll cover:

The First Last Will and Testament

The first use of the Will as we know it can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. These documents were used to transfer possessions between deceased male citizens and their heirs. They were most commonly used by citizens without children or relatives. The process of creating a Will in ancient times was somewhat similar to what we see today: the person had to be of sound body and mind and the creation of the Will required witnesses and signatures. Today, we might call this process a notarial Will. 

Following the study of ancient Greece and Rome, historians often trace the usage of Wills to early England. The use of Wills here not only designated the inheritance of one’s belongings, but also determined who inherited any land they might have owned. As you probably guessed, early American traditions of creating and implementing Wills followed these practices closely.

Most of the research done on the Last Will and Testament has centered around Western Europe — as much of our legal history in the United States can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. However, evidence suggests that Wills and other forms of Estate Planning existed around the world in early human history. For example, religious texts such as the Qur’an outline inheritance law and other processes governing succession.

How Have Wills Changed Over Time?

The process of creating a Last Will and Testament has changed significantly over time as family structures, customs, and legal systems have evolved. While the purpose of a Will has stayed roughly the same (to help ease the burden of a death on surviving family members), societal changes have caused these documents to shape-shift into what we know today. 

Perhaps the biggest difference between ancient and modern Estate Planning involves gender. According to research, the Wills of the ancient Greeks and Romans only allowed property and possessions to transfer between men. Today these restrictions simply do not play any role in the Estate Planning process. 

One particularly interesting change in inheritance law is that early Wills did not have a process for disinheriting heirs — unless there was severe misconduct. There are numerous reasons why you might want to change those included in your Will, such as a divorce or estrangement. If these circumstances were to occur, modern day Estate Planning luckily includes processes on how to disinherit someone in your will.  

The Importance of Creating a Will

It is apparent that Wills have, and continue to, withstand the test of time. The reason for this is simple: they offer clarity and instruction after one’s death. They also give people the peace of mind that comes from knowing they’ve done their part to protect their family’s future.

In early history, whether it was the creation of a Last Will and Testament or the implementation of succession laws, societies were planning ahead in the event of death. The importance of writing a Will only becomes more apparent as you look at the purposes these documents can serve: 

  • A Will places an executor in charge of your final wishes

  • They can designate guardians for children and pets

  • They allow you to appoint individuals to make decisions regarding medical care and financials.

  • Wills include the wishes for final arrangements

  • These documents include a distribution of assets and property

It could be argued that as our lives become increasingly complicated that each of these steps become more urgent. After all, family structures have shifted, assets and possessions have likely increased and final arrangements involve many more choices. Considering each of these factors, it is clear that prioritizing your Estate Planning is of utmost importance. 

The good news is that despite our increasingly complex lifestyles, humans have come a long way in terms of procedural development. In fact, creating a Last Will and Testament, or even a Trust, is much easier than it once was thanks to technology! Given the importance (and newfound simplicity) of this process — why not take the time to safeguard your legacy and protect your family now?

Start your Will with Trust & Will today and worry less tomorrow.