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Inheritance and Dowry

Athenian men and women were supposed to preserve their property as best they could so that it could be handed down to their children. Parents who spent all of their cash and disposed of their other property for their own personal pleasure without due regard for the ultimate consequences for their offspring incurred social disgrace. Daughters did not inherit a portion of their father's property if there were any living sons, but demographic patterns meant that perhaps one household in five had only daughters, to whom the father's property then fell. Women could also inherit from other male relatives who had no male offspring. A woman's regular share in her father's estate came to her in her dowry at marriage. A son whose father was still alive at the time of the son's marriage similarly often received a share of his inheritance at that time to allow him to set up a household. A bride's husband had legal control over the property in his wife's dowry1, and their respective holdings freqently became commingled. In this sense husband and wife were co-owners of the household's common property, which only had to be alloted between its separate owners if the marriage was dissolved2. The husband was legally responsible for preserving the dowry and using it for the support and comfort of his wife and her children. A man often had to put up valuable land of his own as collateral to guarantee the safety of his wife's dowry. Upon her death, the dowry became the inheritance of her children. The expectation that a woman would have a dowry tended to encourage marriage within groups of similar wealth and status. As with the rules governing women's rights to inheritances, customary dowry arrangements supported the society's goal of enabling males to establish and maintain households because daughters' dowries were usually smaller in value than their brothers' inheritances and therefore kept the bulk of a father's property attached to his sons.

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