July 25, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Light rain 22°C

The crown's will

By Don Carroll
Published: 2016-06-30

King Henry VIII could be a terrifying figure, but his reign helped usher in wills as we know them today.
P

rince died without a will. So did Amy Winehouse and Jimmy Hendrix. Philip Seymour Hoffman had an old one that mentioned only one of his three children. Heath Ledger’s will didn't mention one-time partner Michelle Williams or the child he fathered with her.

In the absence of a will, intestacy laws (who inherits what) and case law are commonly used to help resolve what can often be a tangled web of interests and intentions. That's what happens when someone dies without making their last wishes legally clear.

My first client in Rome died recently and left behind a complex will. She'd started the estate planning process years earlier, determined to ensure her children would be well cared for.

As U.S. and Italian laws changed, so did the will. The changes also reflected choices of a more personal nature. There was property to itemize. Charitable giving required arrangement. She decided to include a trust. There was also the matter of naming an executor. She even set down the reasons behind her decisions.

But creating a document to legally ensure the furthering of one's wishes after death wasn't always simple. For centuries, the right to do so was shaky.

In the early 16th century England's King Henry VIII was not a happy man.

The crown's coffers were drained. In addition to budgetary strains caused by Henry's renowned extravagances, the crown faced a shortfall in "feudal incidents," fees due upon the death of a landholder if the land passed to an heir.

Landholders eager to bypass the payment found a legal loophole by creating a primitive form of trust called a "use." The "use" enabled another person, someone exempt from the fee, to hold legal title to the land (though it was being used by the landholder or his family.)

Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer and Henry's chief minister, mobilized against the "use" practice. In 1535 he rammed the Statute of Uses through Parliament. It outlawed uses and effectively made the legal holders of land liable for the feudal dues. It also reinstated a feudal rule known as "primogeniture." which held that a landholder's firstborn male would be senior-most in the inheritance chain.

The law made it all but impossible for landholders to express personal preferences. Sometimes, in the absence of male heirs, property had to be turned over, or escheated, to the crown.

Landholders increasingly resented Cromwell's fiscal noose. Frustration with Henry had been building since 1529, when he'd started England down the Reformation path that would eventually lead to estrangement from the Roman Catholic Church. Many saw this as a broader threat to all English Christianity.

Cromwell closed monastery after monastery, bringing the properties and their revenues under crown control. Money flowing to the papacy was redirected to royal coffers.

The tension spawned the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion of some 30,000 landowners led by lawyer Robert Aske. They demanded that Henry pull back from his oppressive policies and repeal the Statute of Uses.

Henry was unable to quell the uprising through force. The negotiations that followed were instrumental in the creation and adoption of the 1540 Statute of Wills. The compromise law finally allowed landholders to determine who would inherit their land — so long as their wishes were expressly stated in a will. In the absence of a will, all would revert back to the terms of the Statute of Uses, still in effect.

The Statute of Wills served as a precursor to similar legislation in other common law countries, including the United States.

Yet it's wonder the law even saw the light of day.

Why?

Henry wasn't fond of compromises.

He beheaded second wife Anne Boleyn, Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell and revolt-leader Robert Aske (and hundreds of his allies).

A will is only one of many documents to consider when putting your affairs in order. But the precious right to legally express one's posthumous wishes was hard-earned, which is worth remembering. As too many celebrities have shown, it's never too early to put those wishes down.

Print | Email | | | 1

CLOSING ARGUMENT

Don Carroll

Hunting you down

Time is running out for taxpayers trying to elude the IRS's tightly stitched FATCA net.

The "voice" of music

A trip to the America south for the French Quarter Festival turns musically personal.

Triple scotch

New EU succession laws make it vital for U.S. citizens in Europe to check their wills.


MILAN NOTEBOOK

Madeleine Johnson

Summer, ascending

Tumultuous weeks seem to have little impact on Milan's sacrosanct rites of summer.

Circle game

Donald Trump may resemble Silvio Berlusconi, but the real parallels between Italian and U.S. politics run deeper.


THAT'S QUEER

Mark Campbell

Children of a lesser god

Gay civil unions are step in the right direction, but they still leave the matter of children in the hands of Catholic morality.


THE ECONOMIST

Vittorio Jucker

Less is more

Euro 2016, won by Portugal, was much ado about defense, but there's no shame in that.


SOUTHERN NOTES

Jacob Carroll

Guns and culture

The Second Amendment isn't embraced in passing, it's part of a deeply held way of life.


LOST IN TRANSLATION

Jennifer Allison

Gut, betrayed

Failure to listen to your gut feelings (and an angry woman) can land you in awkward situations.


2ND GENERATION

Alexandra Bruzzese

Crushes of old

A writer's love of Michael Phelps resurfaces just in time for the Rio Summer Olympics.


LA UNA

Oonagh Stransky

Give me my heroes

When it comes to 21st-century anxiety, seek refuge in superheroes like modern Madeline and Stone Age Ug.


CLOSING ARGUMENT ARCHIVE


Day and Boarding International High School in the Heart of Rome

Everything you need to know about visiting or moving to Tuscany, Italy.