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History Legitimacy Overview

History Legitimacy Overview

The legal and civil rights of
illegitimate children has changed drastically over the past century. Until the 1920s,
most countries had been using the same legal rulings for dealing with common
problems that illegitimate children faced. These problems ranged from
inheriting property from an unwed parent to getting financial support. Old laws
tried to punish the unwed parents of illegitimate children by punishing the
children themselves. For centuries this idea resulted in many children being
treated unfairly by society.


Illegitimacy has existed since the dawn of time. Many famous
people throughout history have been illegitimate and their shame is said to
have shaped their lives. Famous artist Leonardo da Vinci as well as the United
States’ first Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton were both born to
unmarried mothers.

Having an illegitimate child was
an embarrassment as well, although it was mostly the women who had to deal with
the embarrassment. Since there was no real way to legally force paternity
 acknowledgement, the unwed
mothers were often left to take care of the child on their own as well as bear
the brunt of the humiliation that accompanied having a child out of wedlock.
Having children out of wedlock was unheard of for many people and any woman
unfortunate enough to get pregnant would often be forced to relinquish care to
a married relative or give the baby up for adoption

Implications on Inheritance

One of the biggest legal challenges for illegitimate children was
inheriting a parent’s estate after the parent’s passing. While illegitimate
children were granted rights to their mothers’ estates fairly early on,
benefiting from their fathers’ estates was not possible until later. Along with
gaining legal access to the mother’s estate, illegitimate children were also
allowed access to the maternal family’s estate in the 1700s through Thomas
Jefferson’s Virginia statute.

If a father wanted to leave
something to an illegitimate child, he had to specifically state so in his
will. No property
 would automatically go to the
illegitimate child, even if the father had acknowledged paternity. Several
Supreme Court
 rulings in the late 1900s
changed this, most notably
Levy v. Louisiana. In that case, the
illegitimate children of a woman filed a wrongful death suit on her behalf and
were denied access to the funds. The ruling went in favor of the illegitimate

Today, inheritance laws are the
same for children born out of wedlock or born in wedlock. As long as a child is
legally acknowledged by the father, then a marriage license
 is unnecessary. If a father
refuses to assert paternity, then a woman can have a DNA test
 done. If the results come back
finding an individual is the biological father of the child, than he is legally
obligated to support
 the child.

Hereditary Titles

Legitimacy is still important in a couple of areas. Hereditary
titles are one of them. Since the very definition of hereditary means in the
family, then it is not surprising that royalty is particular about making sure
the proper individual receives a hereditary title. However, although
illegitimacy is supposed to stop an individual’s succession, there have been
many times when it has not. In fact, rumors surround the legitimacy of many
important royal figures.

Some important royalty is noted
to be illegitimate. One such case is Elizabeth I of England: she became
illegitimate following her parents’ annulment
. Under Catholic Canon Law, if a couple has an annulment, then
the children they had during the marriage become illegitimate. One cannot
remarry in the Catholic Church unless they get an annulment from all previous
marriages. When Elizabeth I became Queen of England, there was much controversy
surrounding the decision.

Coinage of Bastardy

While the term illegitimate can be considered insulting and is
almost never used anymore, the word bastardy stuck around for centuries. The
word bastardy is considered to be derogatory and informally refers to a man
with violent tendencies. It also referred to the character of the illegitimate

Illegitimate boys were
sometimes referred to as whoresons. Although the actual word never technically
entered into legal statute, it was used in common law which means that it was
used in more of an informal rather than legal way. The word bastardy was also
used when filing a motion to request legal paternal acknowledgment. The action
was called a bastardy proceeding. Without paternal acknowledgement, receiving
financial support for a child is impossible.


Being legitimated refers to the act of a child becoming legitimate
in the eyes of the law. This term means different things when it comes to
defining legal and religious rulings. Today, a child becomes legitimate if they
are officially acknowledged by the father.

Legitimacy once only referred
to the marital status of the parents at the time of birth. As laws governing
illegitimate children progressed, being legitimated became easier. Canon laws,
or the laws governing the Catholic Church, began allowing for a child’s
legitimacy status to change if the parents married within a year of the birth.

Becoming legitimate in today’s
society involves a father acknowledging paternity. Once a father acknowledges
paternity, they become an individual’s legal father, and with the new legal
status, the child is considered legitimate. Laws throughout the years have
changed to allow for children to achieve legitimacy if their parents married
later in time, so long as they could have legally married at the time of
conception. Loosely, this translated into making sure that children born into
extramarital affairs do not achieve legitimacy. Later, this progressed to allow
children to achieve legitimacy if their parents married at all, regardless of
what their status was at the time of conception.

Push Toward Legal Equality

Besides hereditary titles and citizenship status,
illegitimate and legitimate children are treated equally under the law. This
was no easy feat to achieve. For years, people have fought to give equal rights
to all children, regardless of legitimacy status. Several Supreme Court rulings
in the 1900s finally changed the face of current legitimacy laws.

The first
major breakthrough for children born to unwed parents came when the Legitimacy
Act of 1926 was passed. This granted legitimacy to all children who had parents
that married at a later date, as long as the parents would have been legally
able to marry at the time of the child’s conception. This law was to be updated
three more times. The final version of it was passed in 1987 and abolished all
remaining laws that favored legitimate children over illegitimate ones, except
concerning royal hereditary titles or citizenship status.