All Things Austen in April: Inheritance Law and Miss Austen — 35 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for making that clearer to me!
    One last question remains- if Mr. Bennet and M.Dashwood could not leave anything to their wifes and daughters, does that also mean that they could not spend the income from their land on saving their futures? Set away some money for them as some sort of “settlement”? Were thost two patrons just too lazy/not rich enough to do that?

    • They can keep any past income on the estate, but, as Mr. Bennet is said to have thought: “Mr. Bennet had very often wished before this period of his life that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by and annual sum for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she survived him. He now wished it more than ever. Had he done his duty in that respect, Lydia need not have been indebted to her uncle for whatever of honour or credit could now be purchased for her.The satisfaction of prevailing on one of the most worthless young men in Great Britain to be her husband might then have rested in its proper place.” Then: “When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for…….This event had at last been despaired of, but it was then too late to be saving.”(Chapter 50)

      The owners of entailed property could not sell any property involved in the entail, which included the land, manor house and any other buildings on the estate, furniture, etc. The remaining family after the owner’s death can only take personal property when they leave- their clothing and personal possessions. In the case of the wife, jewelry inherited from her husband’s family would most likely be included in the entail, but anything which her husband purchased as gifts for her belonged to her and she could keep them.

      In the case of Mr. Henry Dashwood, father of Elinor,Marianne and Margaret, the situation was a bit more complicated. The Norland estate was not entailed, so the uncle could leave the property however he wished. Henry’s son John from his first marriage inherited the Norland estate, but his father had a life interest in Norland from his uncle, so John did not get his inheritance until his father died. John also had a great deal of wealth that he inherited from his mother and her family, so he was already quite well off. The daughters from Henry’s second marriage were left 1,000 pounds each from this uncle as a mark of his affection and Henry Dashwood planned to live frugally and lay by much of his income while Norland was under his control so that he could provide for his second wife and his daughters, but he only lived 1 year after his uncle’s death and did not have time to do this.

      When making out a marriage contract the wife’s settlement is named and put aside for the future of his widow and children, and may include money from the bride’s family (in the form of a dowry) and from the groom in a marriage settlement, but, in the case of Mr. Henry Dashwood, he did not have money to set aside when he married his second wife and she did not come from a wealthy family. This settlement would be put into “the funds” which were basically government bonds where they would accumulate 4% interest, but were not available to be used until Henry Dashwood died. This would protect the widow and children from having the settlement used up by her husband. Once it is in the settlement neither the husband or the wife have access to it until the husband dies. In both S&S and P&P the wives were not from wealthy backgrounds so they only had small dowries and did not inherit any other family money to add to their savings.

  2. So interesting, thanks for this article. I’m British and I still get confused by our laws. Thankfully primogeniture no longer exists.

    • Except in the peerage and the royal family (until 3 years ago when the inheritance of the throne was changed to allow Prince Williams first child, whether male or female, to inherit the throne). England is unique in that women have been able to inherit the throne for hundreds of years (hence, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria) but they could only inherit if there were no sons. Henry VIII’s youngest child was a son by Jane Seymour and this son inherited when Henry died, but he was only king for a few years in his teens before he died. At this point, Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary, inherited, followed by Elizabeth I.

  3. Very interesting….it certainly clarifies alot. I never had considered the differences between landed titles and non-landed ones.
    Thank you!

  4. Thank you for an interesting article. I can now understand why estates were kept as one whole. I always feel sorry for second sons (Col Fitzwilliam) who could end up a tradesman if he needed to earn his living outside of the Army. He could be shunned by the society he was a part of.

    • This was why wealthy families bought careers for their younger sons. The Army, the clergy, and the law (but only as a barrister followed by becoming a judge- not common solicitors, such as Mr. Philips) were the only respectable careers among the gentry. It would be unlikely that they would become tradesmen because of the drop in their social status, but also because they would have had no training in, or knowledge of) a trade.

  5. Nice summary. One question:
    ” If there is no will and no male child, then the law would divide the property evenly among the daughters. In a family like that of the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, if there was not an entail and the estate was divided equally between the five daughters their income from a one fifth share of the small Longbourn estate would not leave any individual daughter with enough income to support herself in comfort.”

    Couldn’t the daughters decide to keep Longbourn intact and simply split the proceeds equally among them? Or sell it and divide the profit? That would be a significant chunk of change.

    • That would theoretically work, but since the government would be determining the fate of the entailed estate they would have to sell the assets and divide them among the daughters (taking an inheritance tax along with it).

      • If I’ve read the wikipedia article correctly, the inheritance tax (legacy duty) for the Bennet daughters would be about 1% of the sale price of the land. Not so burdensome.

  6. Thank you for the information.

    Question: If the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice DID have a son, would they have had to wait (and hope) for the son to reach his majority before being able to break the entail?

    • Yes, they could only break the entail when the son came of age, which was at age 21. So, for this to work, both father and son need to survive until the son is an adult, and then the son has to agree to break the entail, which he might not agree to as it would allow his father to sell some of the property to support his daughters and younger sons after his death. This plan would decrease the value of the estate and with an estate that only produced marginal income in the first place, it might make it impossible for the son to keep running the estate without debt.

  7. I was aware of these facts. However adoption seemed to be fairly murky. Was there even a legal procedure to adopt at all. Jane Austen’s brother agreed to change his name in order to inherit his aunt’s and uncle’s estate. But were there actual documents that he signed to agree to do so? Or was it more a gentleman’s agreement? So many stories seem to just have a baby, a child, etc. taken in and the “parents” decide to rear that little person as their own.

    • It was not uncommon for a wealthy family to have “wards” who were raised by them when their parents died, but they had no financial claims on the family unless they decided to leave them something. Often the wards had money which they would inherit as an adult, but needed someone to raise them until then, and some of their fortune would be used to help cover the expenses of raising them, such as clothes, schooling, etc. The adoption of Jane Austen’s brother Edward by relatives occurred when he was 15 and yes, there would have been a detailed contract setting out the requirements on both sides. Obviously, they could do this because they did not have entailed property and could dispose of it as they wished. One of the items in the contract was that he would change his last name to theirs, so their family name would not die out, so he became Edward Austen Knight.

  8. Thank you for the information, but my question is the same as Sheila’s regarding the adoption of Jane Austin’s brother.

  9. Thank you for all the detail. When in the death tax come into play? This became such a huge problem for those who inherited these estates/properties.

  10. Thanks for this post. How complicated was it?? I always thought it was so unfair that the eldest son got it all (as in Colonel Fitwilliam losing out!)but you have explained it so well and I can see how the estates would rapidly disintegrate if split.

  11. The question of inheritance tax is not a straightforward one. The first “inheritance tax” laws began in the 1600s and various changes were made until 1984, when the current inheritance tax laws were made. This article on Wikipedia does a pretty good job of explaining the different types of taxes that were on inherited land and/or personalty (personal possessions).

  12. Yes, inheritance taxes have caused many people with large estates to lose their property or have to turn it over to the National Trust and have tourists tripping through the public rooms several days a week

  13. Is there an explanation of how Mr Collins does not have the same surname as Mr Bennet that does not assume Mr Collins or his father changed his name, as per Edward Austen Knight? Surely the nearest male relative would have to go through the male line at all points, and a son born to Jane or Elizabeth would therefore never qualify as an heir under the entail.

  14. Pingback: Mrs. Bennet, Insane or Logical? Regency Era Inheritance – Lily's Letters on Literature

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