History Legitimacy Overview

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 children.

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 child.

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.




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