European settlers brought inheritance practices and legal conventions with them to New Zealand in the 19th century. Māori had existing practices relating to inheritance of leadership and land. Māori succession to land in particular was modified by colonial institutions like the Native Land Court. In the 21st century succession to land held under Māori title is dealt with differently from general land and other assets contained in estates.
What is inheritance?
Inheritance is the process of transferring estates to other people at death. It is a way of making, continuing and strengthening economic connections between the dead and the living and across generations. Inheritance can also cause conflict when there is disagreement over the way estates are distributed.
Estates include a wide range of assets such as cash, houses, businesses, land and smaller items such as furniture, jewellery and cars. They vary in size depending on individual circumstances. Some New Zealanders die with little or nothing to bequeath beyond personal belongings and items of sentimental value. Debts are paid out of the estate and not by will beneficiaries.
Some people try to exert a controlling influence on the beneficiaries of their will. Thomas Cawthron left his solicitor’s sister Minnie Palmer an annuity in his will when he died in 1915. The will stated that 'if the said Minnie Elizabeth Palmer gets married or has sexual intercourse with any man then this last payment shall absolutely cease for ever'.1 The story behind this instruction is not known.
Most inheritances involve family, and go through a two-stage process if couples are involved. First, an estate is passed on to the surviving spouse or partner. When the surviving partner dies the estate goes to the next generation or to other family members such as siblings or nephews and nieces if there are no children.
Among married couples it is mainly women who pass on family assets, because they typically live longer and are younger than their male partners.
Traditionally, it was common for wives to benefit only from the interest generated by their husband’s estate, and not have access to the assets, which were left to the succeeding generation. With greater gender equality and increased participation in the labour market by women in the late 20th century this practice – sometimes referred to as control from the grave – became less common.
Inheritance by the eldest son (primogeniture) did occur in New Zealand in the 19th and early 20th centuries, although a study of wealthy families at this time found equal inheritance amongst siblings was common and sons and daughters were often treated similarly.
Less well-off families had less to divide. Among some families there was an expectation that daughters would be maintained by husbands (unless they remained single) and would therefore receive less valuable items such as dinner sets. This attitude changed over time, and by the late 20th century equality among siblings was the norm.
Unequal divisions typically occur when one child needs extra or special care (often due to illness or disability), where a particular child has provided special care or services to the parents, or where unequal treatment of children (such as money given to one child and not another) occurred during the deceased’s lifetime.
Wills do not have to state why decisions are made regarding the division of estates, but some people provide an explanation. Frank Hill’s will stated: ‘I record that I have made no provision from my residuary estate for my said son [A] and my daughter [B] as I believe that they and their families are financially well off and have no need for financial assistance from me. The bequest of my residuary estate to my said daughter [C] is in recognition of her kindness and responsibility in attending to my personal affairs over recent years.’2
Factors affecting inheritance
For most estates the home is the most important asset. Home-ownership rates among older people are high but average incomes are low. To maintain a good standard of living and meet expenses, some sell the family home and buy a smaller, cheaper home. Others enter equity release schemes, which allow access to the money tied up in the home without selling. Money is loaned and interest is charged. The interest and principal loan are repayable when the home is sold. This affects the value of estates – there is less money left over for inheritances.
Expenses related to rest-home care can affect the value of inheritances, although asset- and income-tested subsidies are available for people in care. Those with assets and incomes above the thresholds pay more for care.
In the 21st century diverse forms of family complicate inheritance. Blended families raise questions about inheritance rights to the home and other assets if these are not owned equally by the couple.