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Hereditary succession. Succession to the ownership of an estate by inheritance, or by any act of law, as distinguished from purchase. Title by descent is the title by which one person, upon the death of another, acquires the real estate of the latter as an heir at law. The title by inheritance is in all cases called descent, although by statute law the title is sometimes made to ascend. The division among those legally entitled thereto of the real property of intestates.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. the rules of inheritance established by law in cases in which there is no will naming the persons to receive the possessions of a person who has died. The rules of descent vary somewhat from state to state and will usually be governed by the law of state in which the deceased party lived. Depending on which relatives survive, the estate may go all, or in part to the surviving spouse, and down the line from a parent to children (or if none survive, to grandchildren), or up to surviving parents, or collaterally to brothers and sisters. If there are no survivors among those relatives, then aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews may inherit, depending on their degree of kinship (closeness of family relationship), state laws of descent and distribution, or whether the deceased person lived in a community property state (in which the wife has a survivorship right to community property). (See: inheritance, intestate succession, degree of kinship, descent and distribution, community property)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


1 automatic transmission of citizenship for one generation: British Nationality Act 1981. Descent may be traced through either parent. Parents who are BRITISH CITIZENS by descent cannot normally transmit their citizenship to children born overseas, unless working for the Crown or some similar service or for a Community institution within the EUROPEAN UNION.
2 the transmission of real property to the heir on an intestacy.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

DESCENT. Hereditary succession. Descent is the title, whereby a person, upon the death of his ancestor, acquires the estate of the latter, as his heir at law: This manner of acquiring title is directly opposed to that of purchase. (q.v.) 2 Bouv. Inst. n. 1952, et seq.
     2. It will be proper to consider, 1. What kind of property descends; and, 2. The general rules of descent.
     3.-1. All real estate, and all freehold of inheritance in land, descend to the heir. And, as being accessory to the land and making a part of the inheritance, fixtures, and emblements, and all things annexed to, or connected with the land, descend with it to the heir. Terms for years, and other estates less than freehold, pass to the executor, and are not subjects of descent. It is a rule at common law that no one can inherit read estate unless he was heir to the person last seised. This does not apply as a general rule in the United States. Vide article Possessio fratris.
     4.-2. The general rules of the law of descent. 1. It is a general rule in the law of inheritance, that if a person owning real estate, dies seised, or as owner, without devising the same, the estate shall descend to his descendants in the direct line of lineal descent, and if there be but one person, then to him or her alone; and if more than one person, and all of equal degree of consanguinity to the ancestor, then the inheritance shall descend to the several persons as tenants in common in equal parts, however remote from the intestate the common degree of consanguinity may be. This rule is in favor of the equal claims of descending line, in the same degree, without distinction of sex, and to the exclusion of all other claimants. The following example will, illustrate it; it consists of three distinct cases: 1. Suppose Paul shall die seised of real estate, leaving two sons and a daughter, in this case the estate would descend to them in equal parts; but suppose, 2. That instead of children, he should leave several grandchildren, two of them the children of his son Peter, and one the son of his son John, these will inherit the estate in equal proportions; or, 3. Instead of children and grandchildren, suppose Paul left ten great grandchildren, one the lineal descendant of his son John, and nine the descendants of his son Peter; these, like the others, would partake equally of the inheritance as tenants in common. According to 'Chancellor Kent, this rule prevails in all the United States, with this variation, that in Vermont the male descendants take double the share of females; and in South Carolina, the widow takes one-third of the estate in fee; and in Georgia, she tales a child's share in fee, if there be any children, and, if none, she then takes in each of those states, a moiety of the estate. In North and South Carolina, the claimant takes in all cases, per stirpes, though standing in the same degree. 4 Kent, Com. 371; Reeves' Law of Desc. passim; Griff. Law Reg., answers to the 6th interr. under the head of each state. In Louisiana the rule is, that in all cases in which representation is admitted, the partition is made by roots; if one root has produced several branches, the subdivision is also made by root in each branch, and the members of the branch take between them by heads. Civil Code, art. 895.
     5.-2. It is also a rule, that if a person dying seised, or as owner of the land, leaves lawful issue of different degrees of consanguinity, the inheritance shall descend to the children and grandchildren of the ancestor, if any be living, and to the issue of such children and grandchildren as shall be dead, and so on to the remotest degree, as tenants in common; but such grandchildren and their descendants, shall inherit only such share as their parents respectively would have inherited if living. This rule may be illustrated by the following example: 1. Suppose Peter, the ancestor, had two children; John, dead, (represented in the following diagram by figure 1,) and Maria, living (fig. 2); John had two children, Joseph, living, (fig. 3,) and Charles, dead (fig. 4); Charles had two children, Robert, living, (fig. 5,) and James, dead (fig. 6.); James had two children, both living, Ann, (fig. 7,) and William, (fig. 8.)

     Peter (0) the ancestor.
     ³ ³
     (1) John (2) Maria
     ³ ÚÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ¿ ³ ³ (3) Joseph (4) Charles
     ³ ³
     (5) Robert (6) James
     ³ ³
     (7) Ann (8) William

     In this case Maria would inherit one-half; Joseph, the son of John, one-half of the half, or quarter of the whole; Robert, one-eighth of the whole; and Ann and William, each one-sixteenth of the whole, which they would hold as tenants in common in these proportions. This is called inheritance per stirpes, by roots, because the heirs take in such portions only as their immediate ancestors would have inherited if living.
     6.-3. When the owner of land dies without lawful issue, leaving parents, it is the rule in some of the states, that the inheritance shall. ascend to them, first to the father, and then to the mother, or jointly to both, under certain regulations prescribed by statute.
     7.-4. When the intestate dies without issue or parents, the estate descends to his brothers and sisters and their representatives. When there are such relations, and all of equal degree of consanguinity to the intestate, the inheritance descends to them in equal parts, however remote from the intestate the common degree of consanguinity may be. When all the heirs are brothers and sisters, or all of them nephews and nieces, they take equally. When some are dead who leave issue, and some are living, then those who are living take the share they would have taken if all had been living, and the descendants of those who are dead inherit only the share which their immediate parents would have received if living. When the direct lineal descendants stand in equal degrees, they take per capita, by the head, each one full share; when, on the contrary, they stand in different degrees of consanguinity to the common ancestor, they take per stirpes, by roots, by right of representation. It is nearly a general rule, that the ascending line, after parents, is postponed to the collateral line of brothers and sisters. Considerable difference exists in the laws of the several states, when the next of kin are nephews and nieces, and uncles and aunts claim as standing in the same degree. In many of the states, all these relations take equally as being next of kin; this is the rule in the states of New Hampshire, Vermont, (subject to the claim of the males to a double portion as above stated,) Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Louisiana. In Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, on the contrary, nephews and nieces take in exclusion of uncles and aunts, though they be of equal degree of consanguinity to the intestate. In Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont, there is no representation among collaterals after the children of brothers and sisters in Delaware, none after the grandchildren. of brothers and sisters. In Louisiana, the ascending line must be exhausted before the estate passes to collaterals, Code, art. 910. In North Carolina, claimants take per stirpes in every case, though they stand in equal degree of consanguinity to the common ancestor. As to the distinction between whole and half blood, vide Half blood.
     8.-5. Chancellor Kent lays it down as a general rule in the American law of descent, that when the intestate has left no lineal descendants, nor parents, nor brothers, nor sisters, or their descendants, that the grandfather takes the estate, before uncles and aunts, as being nearest of kin to the intestate.
     9.-6. When the intestate dies leaving no lineal descendants, nor parents, nor brothers, nor sisters, nor any of their descendants, nor grand parents, as a general rule, it is presumed, the inheritance descends to the brothers and sisters, of both the intestate's parents, and to their descendants, equally. When they all stand in equal degree to the intestate, they take per capita, and when in unequal degree, per stirpes. To this general rule, however, there are slight variations in some of the states, as, in Now York, grand parents do not take before collaterals.
    10.-7. When the inheritance came to the intestate on the part of the father, then the brothers and sisters of the father and their descendant's shall have the preference, and, in default of them, the estate shall descend to the brothers and sisters of the mother, and their descendants and where the inheritance comes to the intestate on the part of his mother, then her brothers and sisters, and their descendants, have a preference, and in default of them, the brothers and sisters on the side of the father, and their descendants, inherit. This is the rule in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode island, Tennessee, and Virginia. In Pennsylvania, it is provided by act of assembly, April 8, 1833, that no person who is not of the blood of the ancestors or other relations from whom any real estate descended, or by whom it was given or devised to the intestate, shall in any of the cases before mentioned, take any estate of inheritance therein, but such real estate subject to such life estate as may be in existence by virtue of this act, shall pass to and vest in such other persons as would be entitled by this act, if the persons not of the blood of such ancestor, or other relation, had never existed, or were dead at the decease of the intestate. In some of the states there is perhaps no distinction as to the descent, whether they have been acquired by purchase or by descent from an ancestor.
    11.-8. When there is a failure of heirs under the preceding rules, the inheritance descends" to the remaining next of kin of the intestate, according to the rules in the statute of distribution of the personal estate, subject to the doctrine in the preceding rules in the different states as to the half blood, to ancestral estates, and as to the equality of distribution. This rule prevails in several states, subject to some peculiarities in the local laws of descent, which extend to this rule.
    12. It is proper before closing this article, to remind the reader, that in computing the degrees of consanguinity, the civil law is followed generally in this country, except in North Carolina, where the rules of the common law in their application to descents are adopted, to ascertain the degree of consanguinity. Vide the articles Branch; Consanguinity; Degree; Line.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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