Mark L. Ascher

89 Texas L. Rev. 1149

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As a result of intense lobbying, problematic legislative trends have developed over the last several decades in the law of the dead (as Professor Ascher refers to the law of wills and trusts). Here Professor Ascher reviews Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts, and Inheritance Law by Lawrence M. Friedman, which explores the reach and longevity of the Dead Hand.

Ascher outlines and discusses four important changes in the law of the dead included in Friedman’s book.  These involve changes in family structure, record keeping, demographics and culture, and societal attitudes toward wealth and the wealthy.  One important change in family structure, for example, is a shift from focusing on the bloodline family to the family of affection and dependence.  Another example is that the surviving spouse once only received limited inheritance, while today the surviving spouse is usually the primary if not exclusive taker. Although Friedman thinks this reflects a change in the family structure, Ascher argues that it is “attributable to and emblematic of the ever-increasing stature of women in American society.”

Ascher also examines the development of dynastic trusts and how such trusts concern societal attitudes toward wealth, in particular of the dynastic kind.  Friedman thinks that in the beginning, Americans were initially skeptical of such wealth, but the end of the nineteenth century saw much more acceptance for it.  Ascher, however, argues that the Progressive Movement was yet to come, which embodied a continued skepticism of dynastic wealth.  Ascher then discusses other aspects of trusts and the changes thereto, some of which are troubling.  But Friedman’s book, according to Ascher, lacks a sense of outrage over these developments, even though Friedman is critical of other issues, which is Ascher’s biggest criticism.

Ascher then looks at Friedman’s treatment of charitable gifts and foundations, and later, “death” taxes.  He also returns to Friedman’s argument that our collective attitude toward wealth has changed, which Ascher does not believe to be the case. Ascher notes that we have strayed far from Thomas Jefferson’s warnings against establishing an aristocracy. Both the estate tax and the rule against perpetuities have been the primary means of preventing the accumulation and propagation of dynastic wealth.  It is troubling then that both have recently been curtailed.  Yet, Ascher concludes, it would not be difficult to get back on the right path, with a few sensible changes to the rules.