Laws governing illegitimacy have changed drastically over the last century. Children who were born to unmarried parents were often outcasts from society. There was a time when an acknowledgment of paternity did not matter in terms of defining a family unit or granting the child legitimacy.
These children were often not allowed to receive any inheritance from their parents, especially from their fathers, unless it was stated specifically in the father’s will. Paternity was something that could be acknowledged and represented by an individual, but the State put major barriers in the way of anyone who attempted to inherit their parents’ estates.
English law in particular set the harshest standards for determining illegitimacy rights. Since the laws were set in the hopes of preventing births outside wedlock, the laws were meant to punish the unmarried parents by punishing their illegitimate children. Inheritance laws reflected this.
In America, the laws were relaxed in the late 1700s to grant children born into illegitimacy the rights to a mother’s property, family name and estate. A father could acknowledge paternity by leaving property to an illegitimate child in his will, but they would have to specifically name the child. State rather than Federal laws were likely to control the inheritance rights of the illegitimate children.
In 1820, the Supreme Court tried to decipher Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute, which relaxed the strict laws that governed illegitimacy. They ruled in Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivan that illegitimate children could not inherit from their brothers or sisters, nor could mothers claim the inheritance rights to an illegitimate child’s estates.
Other important Supreme Court cases included Levy v. Louisiana in 1968 and Stanley v. Illinois in 1972, two cases which granted more inheritance rights to children born into illegitimacy.
Children born to unmarried parents now have almost every legal right that legitimate children have. However, new legal battles about inheritance for children born into illegitimacy still occur.