Reinhard Zimmermann

Testamentary Form Requirements: Arbitrary or Expression of a Legal Culture? Testamentsformen: »Willkür« oder Ausdruck einer Rechtskultur?

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In the history of European private law the law of succession used to play a central role. This is different today. In most modern legal systems, comparatively little scholarly attention is devoted to it; in some of them it is not even a mandatory subject of legal training in the universities. Widely, the law of succession is regarded as static and somewhat boring. In addition, it is taken to be deeply rooted in fundamental cultural values of a society and, therefore, not suitable for comparative study or even legal harmonization. The present article challenges these views, as far as the law of testamentary formalities is concerned. It traces the comparative history of the three main types of form requirements: writing in the testator's own hand, reliance on witnesses, and involvement of a court of law or notary. It is argued that the differences between the legal systems found today do not reflect cultural differences and can, indeed, often be regarded as rather accidental; that the comparative study of a large variety of issues concerning testamentary formalities can indeed be meaningful and enlightening; that in a number of legal systems the law relating to testamentary formalities has been changed more often than many parts of the supposedly much more dynamic law of obligations; that the international will constitutes an unhappy compromise between the will-types found in the various national legal systems and that it is, therefore, not surprising that the Washington Convention has been so remarkably unsuccessful. Attention is also drawn to the purposes served by the form requirements for wills and to the fact that, in the modern world, the holograph will (traditionally regarded as the simplest and most convenient way to make a will) is rapidly acquiring a much more solemn character. This paper is based on the Savigny lecture, delivered in Marburg on 24 October 2011, to mark the 150th anniversary of Savigny's death. It therefore concludes by asking why Savigny does not appear to have devoted much attention to the law of succession, what Savigny thought of testamentary formalities, and whether that may have any significance for us today.

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