This involved an elderly man in his 80s leaving his entire Estate to his cleaner of 3 years, thus disinheriting his 3 adult children. The children approached the High court for the nullification of their late father’s estate on the basis that his last Will was invalid by reason of undue influence exerted by the cleaner...


Inheritance and its types

As rendered by Investopedia, “]nheritance refers to the assets that an individual bequeaths to their loved ones after they pass away. An inheritance may contain cash, investments such as stocks or bonds, and other assets such as jewellery, automobiles, art, antiques, and real estate”. In the African context, especially in the rural sector, land is a major element among inheritance categories; so also is wife inheritance on which more will be said later. Expatiating further, the e-platform named above, notes:

The value of an inheritance can range from a few thousand dollars to several million dollars. In most countries, inheritance assets are subject to inheritance taxes, where beneficiaries may find themselves saddled with tax liabilities. The rates of an inheritance tax (sometimes referred to as a "death duty" or "the last twist of the taxman's knife") depend on a host of factors, including a beneficiary's state of residence, the value of the inheritance, and the beneficiary's relationship to the decedent.

It goes further to add a footnote: There is a distinction between a "beneficiary" and an "heir". Beneficiaries refer to individuals named in a will, while heirs refer to people such as a child or a surviving spouse, who are entitled to receive a decedent's property, by “intestate succession,” which is a set of rules created to sort out inheritance matters, in the absence of a will.

Origins and importance of inheritance

In historical terms, the concept of inheritance is essentially feudal, which has been the basis for the preference given to the male over the female child at the transition of their parents.

Citing George Bangham, a research and policy analyst for the Resolution Foundation, James Gordon on Raconteur issue of September 4, 2019, observed that: “We are moving into a society where the money you inherit from your family matters much more for your living standards than the money you can earn yourself through work.” He added: “The combination of more wealth overall, and an unequal distribution of it, means wealth gaps in society are widening.”

The importance of inheritance registers itself in notable ways. Pallavi Mall, who views the subject from a combination of social and legal perspectives of the in his October 21, 2018 piece, “The impact of inheritance and Succession Laws on the Economy: Significance of Inheritance and Succession”, published on the Nickeled &Dimed platform, has provided an embracing, yet penetrating insight that runs as follows:

Often inheritance is taken for granted – an individual possesses the right to pass their wealth or property to either their legal heirs or stranger and the inheritor has a right to receive it and that they are entitled to it. When examined, it can be seen that laws of succession play a significant role as they solve the issue of distribution of property over time as each property holder’s death is inevitable. Succession laws do serve some basic functions in society – the inheritance, a social order of kinds is carried on across time. Additionally, it may encourage individual responsibility in order to provide for dependents. Succession laws along with the concept of private property allow an individual to maintain their freedom apart from the state and society. They also ensure persistence of economic life post-death.

Elizabeth Cooper, in her 2011 piece on: “Women and inheritance in Sub-Saharan Africa: Opportunities and challenges for policy and practice change”, published by Chronic Research Centre, alluded to the importance of inheritance especially in Africa, noting that:

 Inheritance is a critical mode of property transfer in Sub-Saharan African countries. The wealth that an individual or household inherits can enable them and their families to engage in productive livelihoods, invest and do well. The absence of inherited assets in the form of land, savings and other forms of capital can leave other individuals and families vulnerable and can contribute to both chronic and inter-generationally transmitted poverty.

A more nuanced rendition on the subject by Sean Tong in the piece on: “The Role of Inheritance within Capitalism”, where a sustained argument is made against inheritance and in favour of tax imposition. The author avers as follows: “There can be little doubt that the practice of inheritance contributes to the existence of wealth inequality in capitalist societies: 31% of wealth in the United States can be attributed to bequests, in addition to the 20% gained through inter vivos transfers” [inter vivos is Latin of ‘between the living’-AM]

Back to Pallavi Mall, who reminded us on, how: “The poof-feudal concept of inheritance and laws of succession originates from the notion of the family as a social unit which needs protection and preservation. Accordingly, for instance, when a person dies and is survived by his children and wife, these laws are applied in an attempt to man sure that their basic needs for sustenance are taken care of through the property of the deceased. Such attempts are realised in a situation of intestate succession by figuring out potential heirs and intestate succession, however, the testator wishes to as long as it is permissible by the law”.

The special case of women

A major justification for our focus on inheritance is the gender-biased and hence undemocratic treatment meted to women especially, across Africa. Abby Morrow Richardson, in a 2004 piece in Human Rights Brief, Volume II Issue 2, titled: “Women’s Inheritance Rights in Africa: The Need to Integrate Cultural Understanding and Legal Reform”, noted that:

A considerable hurdle to the realization of women’s human rights in Africa is the pervasive denial of a woman’s right to inherit land and other property. In many traditional societies in sub-Saharan Africa, land use, housing, and the transfer of land and housing between generations is regulated by customary law, which largely excludes women from property ownership and inheritance. Without secure land and property rights, widows and orphans are often left homeless and destitute after the death of their husband or father. Disinheritance seriously undermines women’s economic security and independence as well as their access to adequate food and housing. The denial of land rights to women also contributes to the feminization of poverty and stunted economic development in countries where harmful inheritance practices are common.

In her writing on “Wife inheritance Wife inheritance is an affliction” published on the platform of Ananke, on June 23, 2016, Terry Murithi, who regards women’s inheritance as “an obsolete tradition”, noted that:

Wife inheritance is an affliction that has gripped African society for aeons of time. Widely practised across the entire continent, it is a tradition where a widow gets inherited by relatives of her late husband. Once thought to be an honourable practice, the custom initially entailed taking care of the widow and her children without the proposition of her remarrying. The family merely took the responsibility of her and her family’s well-being.

She referenced another commentator’s perspective to the effect that: “Wife inheritance takes various forms and functions in different cultures, serving in relative proportions as a social protection for and control over, the widow and her children.” An obvious downside of the cultural practice is highlighted in a 1998 study conducted in Ghana which confirmed what has been observed in various other countries of Africa which is that women’s access to land is primarily through their husbands. Thus, it is a tradition that when a husband dies, and if the wife is either childless or has only daughters, then these widows are likely to lose all rights to the land. More than often, the husband’s family shuns any real responsibility whatsoever of taking care of the widow and her children. Many reports suggest widow inheritance then becomes a major hurdle to household food security. As Elizabeth Cooper showed,

Existing research has demonstrated that women’s equal access to, and control and ownership of, land has instrumental value in terms of its positive impact on consumption (increasing spending on food, children’s welfare and education) and productivity (particularly in areas, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, where women are responsible for the majority of land cultivation). Inheritance practices, regulated through both statutory and/or customary laws in many African societies, can exclude particular individuals, particularly widowed women and orphaned children, from rights to property that they were able to access during the lives of their husbands or fathers.

Apart from the specifically-African peculiarity of the way women are treated with regard to inheritance, it is also interesting to see how the subject is perceived among the two of the dominant religions now in vogue on the continent, namely Christianity and Islam.

Inheritance in religions

There are copious references to inheritance in the Bible. However, the connotation of the concept often carries meanings beyond the simple popular meaning and application as its focus is understandably about how to inherit the hereafter-such as in Psalm 37:29 which states: ”The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever”; similarly, Mathew 5:5 states: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. As a Bible study platform noted, the Scriptures transform the concept of inheritance to include the acquisition of spiritual blessings and promises from God. Here are two other selected cases of more direct relevance to out theme:

  • A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous [Proverbs 13:22]
  • An inheritance gained hastily, in the beginning, will not be blessed in the end [Proverbs 20:21]

On a comparative basis especially on the criterion of worldly provision, Islam comes across as much more explicit on how inheritance should be addressed. Broadly, through the Quran and the Hadith-the latter being the observed practices and sayings of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). As explained by an Islamic scholar, the law of inheritance in Islam is based upon five main considerations, namely:

  1. To break up the concentration of wealth among individuals and spread it out in society;
  2. To respect the property right of ownership of an individual earned through honest means;
  3. To hammer in the consciousness of man the fact that man is not the absolute master of wealth he produces but he is its trustee and is not, therefore, authorized to pass it on to others as he likes;
  4. To consolidate the family system which is the social unit of an Islamic society;
  5. To give incentives to work and encourage economic activity as sanctioned by Islam.

Consideration (1) above is likely to raise curiosity in terms of its practical logic but that’s an issue for another debate. Consideration (2) looks harmless and indeed appears a reasonable consideration except that in our society, the issue of ‘honest means’ is very slippery to handle. Perhaps the most defining status of Islamic perspective on inheritance is that it defines and determines in clear-cut terms the share of each inheritor and imposes limits on the right of the property owner to dispose of his property according to his whim and caprice. An obviously instructive provision in Islamic law and practice is that the female is a co-sharer with the male, thereby safeguarding her social and economic rights. It is also pertinent to note that the foregoing provision notwithstanding and as elaborated by Wikipedia, Islam allots women half the share of inheritance available to men if they inherit from the same father. For example, where the decedent has both male and female children, a son's share is double that of a daughter's. However, there are other circumstances where women might receive equal shares to men; for example, the share of the mother and father of a decedent who leaves children behind. Also, the share of a brother who shares the same mother is equal to the share of a sister who shares the same mother, as do the shares of their descendants. In all these and other scenarios of inheritance management, rules intersect with human idiosyncrasies that may unfold to give vent to unpredictable outcomes. For example, how widows are treated by the families of their deceased husbands, especially with regard to physical properties of substantial value varies widely across cultures in Nigeria with greed playing the role of a differentiator. Thus, for this and other factors, inheritance management results in conflict and at times litigation.

Cases of inheritance gone sour

We are informed by Investopedia, that: “Inheritance planning is an unpleasant but necessary task for those of advancing age. While nobody enjoys thinking about their death, a well-structured estate plan can save your heirs and beneficiaries from a lot of legal unpleasantries”.

Interestingly but hardly surprising, instances of inheritance disputes are more common in societies with formalised inheritance principles and practices evidenced by written wills than in societies guided by culture and tradition as in most African countries typified by Nigeria. Of course, as explained by Venessa Ezumah-Onwuchekwa, Esq. in the Paper on: “Succession and Inheritance Under Customary Law: Practice and Procedure” presented at the Workshop organized by the National Judicial Institute, Abuja- May 9-11, 2022, “inheritance of an intestate deceased estate is usually governed by the laws laid down in accordance to the religion or the indigenous belief or customary law and practice of the deceased”. Several cases of the former are on e-display, among them the following, shared on the internet:

  • Adult Children Challenging Father’s Last Will. This involved an elderly man in his 80s leaving his entire Estate to his cleaner of 3 years, thus disinheriting his 3 adult children. The children approached the High court for the nullification of their late father’s estate on the basis that his last Will was invalid by reason of undue influence exerted by the cleaner, lack of testamentary capacity as their father was suffering from dementia, and on the basis that their father lacked knowledge and approval of his Will.
  • A farming family in a bitter dispute involving the farming business. This case concerns the children of mother whose Estate included a farmhouse valued at about 2 million pounds could not be administered due to challenges to her last Will on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity.

From the above and as corroborated by real live cases in Nigeria, the fact of siblings being of the same mother does not preclude the emergence of inheritance disputes. This brings to mind the case of a popular Lagos family of notable siblings with respectable professional statuses, whose patriarch was a legal luminary.

Some takeaways

I have reflected at length on the argument made by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic of June 6, 2011, while addressing the question posed in a clearly militant tone of: “Why Do we Allow Inheritance at All?”; McArdle’s point is that: Inheritance not only hands people valuable income in return for something we don't really want to further reward--being born lucky--but also, in doing so, it entrenches the least attractive feature of our economy: the fact that people who are born to affluent parents are much more likely to themselves be affluent than children born to the less well-heeled.  Lack of economic mobility is generally regarded as a bad thing that we should combat”.

There has been the argument that inheritance undermines the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity; in other words, inheritance fuels inequality in income and wealth. The practical illustration of this evident inequity is that an individual ends up inheriting a large amount of money upon the death of his father; her goes on to invest this money which gets him large amounts of interest in return. He already has a greater income than someone who works much harder in a factory for long hours. This angle of inheritance illustrates that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. In essence, therefore, it shows that inheritance causes social as well as economic inequality.

Without a doubt, transfers from parents—either in the form of gifts or inheritances are a veritable source of inequality. At the same time, is it fair to debar a child from enjoying ‘the fruits of his or her parents’ labour’? There is therefore the challenge of balancing the ‘right of inheritance’ with the principle of equality of opportunity. In the specific African context with Nigeria as a leading example, the sudden accumulation of unexplainable income and wealth by privileged citizens especially in the public sector raises questions as to the legitimacy of the inheritance from both legal and moral angles. At another level of consideration, it is possible to conceive of a social system in which property rights would end with the owner’s death. If the assets left behind were not reassigned to some other individual, the eventual result would be complete ownership of all wealth by the community, and the system of individual property would end, especially in an age of expanding demands on government. I come in peace, please.



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