Book Review: Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts, and Inheritance Law

Lawrence M. Friedman, Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts, and Inheritance Law (Stanford University Press, 2009) 230 pp.

I opened Lawrence Friedman’s Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Law already sold on his central premise: “[b]ig changes in the law of succession necessarily reflect big changes in society” and “smaller, more technical changes” can be just as interesting to those who care about “social meaning and the impact of the law.” My predisposition to agree with Friedman may explain why I was both admiring and disappointed as I read the book.

Let’s begin with the admiration. Friedman deftly weaves explanation of technical legal doctrines, case summaries, and description of the historical and sociological changes that have prompted reform of estates and trusts law. His chapter on the rule against perpetuities illustrates the point. Readers get a two-page comprehensible summary of the rule’s operation and idiosyncrasies, a brief explanation of various reforms, and the observation that reforms accept the rule’s underlying premise that dead hand control must eventually end. Then Friedman discusses the move to outright abolition of the rule, notes how banks anxious to attract trust monies lobbied for abolition, and seizes the opportunity to mention asset protection trusts. Friedman next writes that abolition and asset protection trusts would not be possible “without a bigger, broader change in the culture,” namely (quoting Joel Dobris) “we like rich folks these days.” Friedman then discusses how culture has changed in ways that make ordinary people feel as though they can relate to the rich. (One might wonder whether this affection for the wealthy will survive the Great Recession.) Last, Friedman speculates about whether abolition of the rule or asset protection trusts pose any real danger to the polity and concludes that neither should keep us up at night. I’m breathless just thinking about all that Friedman manages to cover in this 14-page chapter. Indeed, the same can be said about the entire book. Friedman traverses a tremendous amount of ground in 230 pages: intestacy, wills, will contests, will substitutes, dynastic and caretaker trusts, charitable giving, taxes, and of course the rule against perpetuities. Friedman touches on everything that is likely to be covered in an introductory Estates and Trusts course, plus more.

So there is the primary source of the admiration. What about the disappointment? Friedman focuses on the adoption of various reforms and shows how the reform is reflective of broader change. For example, we would not have seen the decline of dower and the fall of the doctrine of coverture without profound changes in societal conceptions of what it means to be a “wife” or “husband.” Similarly, Friedman sees “a trend, or at least the beginning of a trend” as states “respond to changing times” by extending intestacy rights to domestic partners. But the law of estates and trusts does not always follow a linear path forward; sometimes it sputters and stalls. This kind of gear grinding can be just as revealing about the connection between law and society as when reform is achieved. For instance, there was once widespread anticipation that many states would adopt a community property system. Today just nine states have done so. The 1990 Uniform Probate Code (UPC) has an elective share mechanism designed to reflect the principle that all property earned during the marriage belongs equally to both spouses. But some states that otherwise embraced all or part of the UPC have declined to adopt its elective share provisions. The lukewarm reception for community property principles says quite a lot about definitions of “earn” and “own” and societal conceptions of marriage. Friedman spends very little time on the stalls and sputters, even though they too reflect broader societal trends.

The second reason for my disappointment is probably unfair, as I suspect that I am not Friedman’s target audience. Dead Hands is almost entirely descriptive, albeit sometimes brilliantly so. It provides a lens through which to view the law of succession, but is largely agnostic with respect to the content of the law or its future direction. Those who are well-versed in the law of succession will likely already be familiar with much of what Friedman writes, even if they have not yet seen it so nicely explicated. In other words, estates and trusts experts are unlikely to find much in Dead Hands that is truly new to them.

Dead Hands, however, will be useful to at least two audiences. The first is the contingent of property and family law professors who are “drafted” each year to teach Estates and Trusts and who have not yet had a chance to discover why it is one of the most interesting courses in the curriculum. Dead Hands provides a framework for organizing an introductory course and for helping the students conceptualize the material. The second audience who will benefit from this book is law students, both those who want a clearer sense of the big picture in estates and trusts law and those who are interested more generally in law and society. I may add the book as recommended reading in my introductory Estates course; my Fall students can stay tuned.

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