Inheritance is a surprisingly rich topic in worldbuilding and storytelling. The plot of King Lear depends on it, as do all those stories about the third son going off to seek his fortune, and all the ones about dynastic struggles and lines of succession.
You can inherit property, titles, land, and so much more.
It's hard to talk about inheritance, at least of titles, without involving issues of gender. The British crown recently changed its rules to include girls more directly in the succession, but when Queen Elizabeth took the throne, it was because there were so few boys in her generation of the royal family. There have been similar issues with the Japanese Imperial family, where the Crown Prince and his wife have had a daughter, and she is their only child.
Empires and crowns often have issues with trying to prove an unbroken line of succession, due to the idea of the divine right of kings and emperors. The Imperial Household Agency of Japan is known to have forbidden archaeological research because of its interest in preserving the image of an unbroken line stretching back to the sun goddess Amaterasu.
Glenda pointed out that gender is critical to the idea of patrilineal vs. matrilineal inheritance. Morgan noted that in orthodox and conservative Jewish populations, one's identity as a Jew is inherited matrilineally.
In an agrarian society where there is a benefit to having many kids to work a farm, there is a natural problem that arises when you talk about inheriting the land, because land can only be divided so many times.
Morgan brought up property and monetary assets. Assets that have named beneficiaries are relatively straightforward. If there's a will, these will be distributed according to the will. But what constitutes a will? What if there is no will? Will money be distributed by the state, and how? Will the State eventually inherit the money if there are no living heirs?
Morgan told us how she had worked through the inheritance rules of her secondary world. Kenehar has a system most like us. If you are a business owner and you die, the partner will inherit the business. However, Kenehar has been invaded by the Ukandir, who work based on houses. The title of Head of House is inherited by bloodline, but the Head doesn't own the house's assets, and property belongs to the House. Imposition of the Ukandir laws over the Kenehar system lead to complications. Morgan told us that people who leave the Ukandir houses and make money from outside jobs can still have their assets appropriated by the house if they die. Disinheriting someone from a house meas that you never existed as part of it.
I spoke briefly about inheritance questions regarding the throne of Varin, my own secondary world. In Varin there is no blood line, but the Heir is selected by successive votes of a fifteen-member Cabinet between candidates put forward by each of the Great Families.
How does an unfit ruler become ruler? By blood inheritance? Or by some other method?
People often compete for an inheritance. Lots of movies have that as part of their premise. The Aristocats is one of those; Who Framed Roger Rabbit? another; All of Me yet another.
The role of Executor is crucial. Is that person named in the will? Someone needs to be in charge of distribution. Sometimes people can show up with false wills, or less-than-recent ones. How can you tell which one is valid? Must there be witnesses to a will, or a notary? Think about what happens if there is no legal will. What happens if there is a letter but it's unsigned?
In the Mystery genre you see a lot about inheritance and wills. Another question that comes up is the rights of the caretaker. What benefit, if any, accrues to the person who took care of the deceased through their last illness? Did the deceased recognize that person and their efforts or not?
The will of the deceased is not necessarily just. The will may have conditions intended to influence the behavior of heirs from beyond the grave, such as requiring a relationship with the guardian of the assets in order to maintain access to them.
There was a Twilight Zone episode where anyone who wanted to inherit part of a considerable fortune had to wear a mask for 24 hours, and that mask was a hideous reflection of their inner character. Over the 24 hours their face became molded to the mask so it was permanently that way. Conveniently for the story, the deceased was right about the character of the heirs, but what if he hadn't been?
We also mentioned Trusts, which make for a delay in inheritance.
Regents can get in all sorts of trouble! Look at what the Steward of Gondor did: the position became a hereditary rulership because the kings had disappeared, but there were big problems when the kings returned. This thought made me ask, "What if the regent or steward is good and the heir is bad?" What if you wanted to get rid of the heir in order to protect the kingdom, but your ethics couldn't let you kill them? Could you send them away? Could you groom a different heir to be a good person?
Some interesting issues came up right at the end, such as the relationship between the ruler and the culture of a kingdom, and whether the culture would sustain itself if the hereditary succession of the ruler was broken.
We also spoke about cases where Native American people object to scientists studying the remains of their people and what their legal rights are when they are not necessarily directly related to the deceased.
We also asked whether cultural heritage could be a form of inheritance.
By the end of our discussion, we wanted to make sure to talk about this topic again!
Next week we'll meet at 10am on Wednesday, February 3rd to discuss Culture Shock. What happens when you move into a new culture, or convert to a spouse's or other new religion? I hope you can join us!