Estates Law and Ancient Rome
Few histories are as rich and riveting as the history of Ancient Rome, from the uncertain rise of the Roman Republic to the terrible civil wars that brought its ruin, and from the mad reigns of all-powerful Caesars to the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire, owing, generally, to invasions from without and corruption from within. Its history also shows us many of the roots of our legal traditions, including – as will be the focus of this blog – some precursors to modern-day estates law.
“It was customary with the Romans of that age, when they were moving into battle array, and were on the point of taking up their bucklers, and girding their coats about them, to make at the same time an unwritten will, or verbal testament, and to name who should be their heirs, in the hearing of three or four witnesses.”
Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act only requires two witnesses for proper execution of a will (section 4), although soldiers on active service may proceed by writing their wills without witnesses (section 5).
In Ontario, we have instruments at our disposal to prevent or reverse dispositions tainted by incapacity. One may challenge an incapable testator’s will, or one may pre-empt abuse or needless loss with a guardianship application. In Ancient Rome, similarly, those individuals who attempted to give away everything they possessed (what we might call a “spendthrift” the Romans called a “prodigus”) were dealt with as though they suffered from a distemper of the mind.
Under Augustus – of whom it was justly said that he “made a desert and called it peace” – an inheritance tax of 5% was introduced (with some restrictions, such as that it applied only to well-off individuals). A little over a century later, the Emperor Severus increased this inheritance imposition to 10%. While these figures may seem high (or not high enough, depending on where you stand), they may be much lower than inheritance taxes elsewhere, such as in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan and South Korea. In Ontario we do not have an inheritance tax, but there are inheritance-like taxes, like capital gains taxes and probate taxes.
There is a marked difference between Ancient Rome and our common law system with respect to gifting between spouses. Unlike modern Ontario, wherein couples often use joint tenancy as a tax-saving estates planning strategy, Roman spouses were prohibited from gifting to one another. While the rationale for this law is moot, it was likely intended to keep apart the property of each spouse’s bloodline.
The Romans, as well as their civil-law descendants of today, operated under what has become known as “forced heirship”, whereby testators are legally required to give to their children. As a previous blog notes, in modern France, a parent with one child must give that child one-half of his or her property. In Rome, the historian Gibbon says that “if the father bequeathed to his son the fourth part of his estate, he removed all ground of legal complaint”. This is in stark contrast to the common law, in which testators may plan their estates with near-total freedom.
Thank you for reading and enjoy the rest of your day!
Suzana Popovic-Montag & Devin McMurtry