Inheritance law is the area of the law that deals with how a decedent's estate will be distributed or passed down to heirs upon his or her death. Not only will inheritance law vary by country, but it may also vary by states within a country or by religions within a country. In some jurisdictions, these laws take the place of a last will and testament, while in others they only determine the division of assets in the absence of a will.
In the United States, when a decedent dies, his or her estate generally goes through a legal process known as probate. During probate, the decedent's last will and testament is admitted to the court for review. If the decedent did not leave a will then the inheritance law of the state where the decedent died will apply and the estate will pass to the heirs through intestate succession. Intestate succession refers to the legal rules that determine who will receive the decedent's assets and what percentage they will receive.
U.S. inheritance laws do not distinguish between male and female heirs. For instance, if the intestate succession laws of the state where the decedent died dictate that the estate shall pass to the decedent's children, then all children inherit equal shares. Of course, the decedent may give a larger share to a male or female child in a will if he or she chooses to do so. Absent a will, however, all heirs are treated equal regardless of gender.
International inheritance law is often predicated on religious beliefs or doctrines. As such, inheritance laws in countries outside the United States may give preference to male heirs or exclude females from inheriting altogether. Muslim laws of inheritance traditionally excluded females from inheriting at all. In more recent times, Muslim inheritance law has evolved to allow females to inherit, but male heirs are often given two shares for every one share given to a female. In India, under the Indian Succession Act of 1925, a daughter is only entitled to one-fourth of the son's share of any inheritance.
Efforts are being made in some countries to change the practice of favoring male heirs over their female counterparts. The Hindu Succession Amendment Act of 1985 is one such example. Under the Act, female heirs are now given equal treatment in the absence of a will and inherit in equal shares to their male counterparts.