Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Inheritance Anomalies

Mennonites have practiced Flemish inheritance customs since at least the 1700s, and probably before that; so when an inheritance doesn't follow the pattern, it's a big deal.

My great-great-grandmother Katharina Bergmann #7126 (1834-1916) lost her first husband, Johann Barkmann, in 1879 in Nebraska.  Within a couple years, she re-married to her brother-in-law, Martin Barkmann #3982 (1821-1894), who had also lost a couple wives.  Katharina had 80 acres of land; while Martin was a moderately wealthy man because he owned the land where Jansen, Nebr., was established in 1886.  When they got married, according to Flemish/Mennonite custom, both owned all of their property equally, regardless of who owned it before they were married.

Key Facts - Katharina had surviving children from her first marriage, but Martin had no surviving children or grandchildren from his two marriages.  He did have siblings, however.

In 1892, when Martin was 70 years old, he made a will, which would leave his wife $700 if she survived him and the rest of his estate to his siblings.  I found that will in Martin's probate file at the Jefferson Co., Nebr., courthouse.  Here is the first paragraph of the will:
Will of Martin Barkman, 20 July 1892, Probate file #251, Jefferson County, Nebraska, Clerk of the County Court, Fairbury, Courthouse.
According to Mennonite custom, after he died in 1894, his wife Katharina would keep half of their property (both of "her" 80 acres and "his" land and a substantial amount of money).  The other half would go first to his children by blood while Katharina's children (i.e. his step-children) would get nothing.

But he had no living descendants, so then his siblings would equally divide Martin's half of all their property.  Three of Martin's siblings had already died before Martin died in 1894; but since they had children, these children (Martin's nephews and nieces) would divide their parents' shares.

What actually happened was the following: 
1) Katharina kept "her" 80 acres of land - According to Mennonite custom, Martin's siblings should have gotten half of this since that land was owned jointly and since they were Martin's heirs.  But the will said nothing about what to do with "Katharina's" property.
2)  Katharina got $700 in cash - Again, according to custom, Katharina should have gotten half of "his" cash and other financial assets.
3)  Martin's eight siblings each got a one-eighth share of "his" land and other assets - They should have gotten an eighth share of half of "his" land and other assets.

Everything was done legally because Martin had made a will.  But when he made the will, he was deliberately violating centuries of Mennonite custom.  Clearly, Martin intended to manage their assets separately, even though this violated the Mennonite concept of marriage and property.  I don't know if Katharina agreed with this or not.  I've found unsourced grumbling from "the church" about their marriage not being proper, and I wonder if it was because he did not share his material assets equally with his wife.  Violating custom in this way showed that he did not accept Mennonite teaching on a very important matter.

On another note - one nice thing about his will is that it contained their signatures.
I don't have many, if any, signatures of my great-great-grandmothers; so it is special to have her signature, even if it was from a document that cheated her out of part of her inheritance.

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