Intestate is a term used in inheritance law and applies to persons who died without a will or without a legal will. In British Colonial America, intestate estates were almost inclusively the estates of males.
The Southern Colonies and New York intestate estate laws were based on Primogeniture. The Northern Colonies were based on Multigeniture, also known as partible inheritance. Common to both was the widow’s right of dower. Widows received one-third of their husband’s personal and real estate. After the death of the widow, the widow’s portion returned to the heirs of the intestate.
Primogeniture applied to real property and established a specific line of succession which started with the eldest son. In an intestate estate, all of the real property descended to the eldest son. If he were deceased, then the next eldest son. A clearly defined line of succession was followed.
Mulitgeniture, or partible inheritance, applied to the entire estate both real and personal. The estate was inventoried and after the widow’s third allocated, divided into shares. The oldest male heir received a double share while the rest of the heirs, both males and females, each received an equal share. If a child was deceased, their share would go to their children, if any. Commonly, the estate’s value was in real estate and heirs would have to work out how to receive and/or benefit from their share.
Why were the Northern Colonies different? No one really knows. One of the reasons suggested is that the Northern colonists were influenced by Puritan social and religious ideals. There may be some merit to this since in the southern colonies, when families who were known to be Puritan wrote their wills, land was often devised to sons and daughters in a manner that resembles partible inheritance.