Reinhard Zimmermann

Das Ehegattenerbrecht in historisch-vergleichender Perspektive

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The Intestate Succession Rights of the Deceased's Spouse in Historical and Comparative PerspectiveThe coordination of the position of the surviving spouse with that of the deceased's (blood-) relatives is one of central problems faced by the intestate succession systems of the Western world. While the succession of the relatives essentially follows one of three different systems (the »French« system, the three-line system, and the parentelic system) which have remained relatively stable, the position of the surviving spouse has, over the centuries, become ever more prominent. Roman law, at the time of Justinian, took account of the surviving spouse only in exceptional situations, medieval customary law often not at all. Today, on the other hand, she (much more often than he) has worked her way up, in most countries, to the position of main beneficiary under the rules of intestate succession, for small and medium-sized estates sometimes even to the position of exclusive beneficiary. The present essay (based on the author's Rudolf von Jhering lecture at the University of Gießen) traces this development. In doing so it attempts, in the spirit of Jhering, not to line up the laws in the various epochs of our legal history »like pearls on a pearl string« but to look at them as part of a development and to trace their interconnections. The same idea can also be applied to comparative law in view of the fact that the modern national legal systems do not coexist in isolation but in a »system of mutual contact and influence« and, as may be added, on the fertile soil of a common legal culture. Today we find a wide-spread desire to allow the surviving spouse to remain in her familiar environment and to continue to enjoy the standard of living she has become accustomed to. Legal systems still differ as to the way in which best to achieve this aim, i.e. as to the details of the surviving spouse's intestate succession right. An important guideline for assessing the various solutions to be found in the national legal systems is what the average deceased typically regards as reasonable, as far as the distribution of his estate is concerned. This can sometimes be gauged from the way in which wills are commonly drafted, and it has indeed guided the reforms in a number of countries. In Germany, the so-called »Berlin will« is particularly popular. Nonetheless, it does not appear to offer a satisfactory cue for the regulation of the law of intestate succession. In spite of a certain degree of arbitrariness inherent in this way of proceeding, the surviving spouse will have to be given a share (e.g. one half ) of the estate. In addition, she should be granted the right to retain the right to continue to live in the family home.

Reinhard Zimmermann ist Direktor am Max-Planck-Institut für ausländisches und internationales Privatrecht und Professor an der Bucerius Law School, Hamburg.