So Who Gets Black Manor and Kreacher?: A Legal Analysis
by Richard Jones
Now that Sirius is dead (yes, he’s dead), who inherits his property? Anyone who has gone to law school has been trained in spotting legal issues, and this seemingly simple question leads to at least eleven legal and factual issues.
1) Does the wizarding world have its own laws of inheritance, or do British Muggle laws apply? Is JKR going to make up laws we cant anticipate, or is she going to apply British laws?
2) Once Sirius was convicted of murder, would his property be forfeited to the state (if they could find it)? Sirius’ mother died while he was in Azkaban, and he ended up in Black Manor; so convicted felons must have some rights to inherit real estate (if Sirius has legal title to Black Manor and was not just there because no one else could find it).
In American states today, a convicted criminal can leave a valid will. But can convicted witches and wizards in JKR’s world leave real property or personal property to others? Would the Wizarding Probate Court recognize it? I don’t happen to know the state of general British law today, but the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts were governed by British law, and there those convicted and executed for witchcraft had to forfeit at least their personal property (not their real estate) to the town. Again, JKR is the only legislator in the Potterverse – has she made a similar law?
3) Did Sirius leave a will that is valid under applicable wizarding laws? (I like to think that he saw the dangers coming up with LV and was responsible enough to write a will, with Dumbledore as executor. He certainly had enough time and monotony on his hands after he settled into Black Manor after GoF, and he could use members of the Order as witnesses, if they were willing to risk acknowledging that they were with a known criminal – “a mad mass murderer,” to quote Sirius himself.)
Can anyone contest a will in the wizarding world? In the quest to get Black Manor, could we end up with an interminable case like in Dickens Bleak House – Jarndyce v. Jarndyce?
4) If Sirius didn’t leave a will, who has the right to his property? What are the laws of intestate succession in JKRs world? In particular, why would Harry be next in line? Sirius was appointed godfather before James and Lily died, but being a godson does not give Harry any rights to inherit (at least in the Muggle world). Wouldn’t the closest living blood relative inherit, or nobody (so that the property goes to the government)? (And is his younger brother Regulus really dead? Sirius believed he was murdered fifteen years earlier by LV or on his orders. )
5) Was Sirius officially appointed Harry’s guardian, and does this make a difference? Sirius said he was responsible for Harry (OotP pg. 89, US edition). Would the wizarding world recognize a mass murderer (even if we know better) as a guardian of a boy? Or is Dumbledore his legal magical guardian? In PS/SS he had the key to the Potters’ vault at Gringotts that Hagrid used and he makes the decisions as to where Harry goes. In any case, Harry is still a minor shouldnt there be another guardian appointed even if he inherits from Sirius to govern his affairs until he is seventeen? (Witches and wizards may live to be very old, but Fred and George are now of age and legally adults [OotP pg. 91] so seventeen must be the legal age.) Again, is Dumbledore his guardian?
And what about the Durleys being his guardians in the Muggle world? (Or is Harry legally adopted?) They haven’t gotten their grubby hands on James and Lily’s money in Gringotts, so maybe the wizarding world is totally separate.
6) As to his real estate: Do some old European primogenitor laws apply so that Sirius has no options concerning to whom he leaves Black Manor? I don’t know much about those entailment laws, but their purpose was to keep large tracts of productive land in one persons hands by requiring that the land be left to the oldest surviving son. So they might not apply to a single house. On the other hand, those laws might apply since I doubt if Mrs. Black would have voluntarily left Black Manor to her blood-traitor son Sirius. (Again, does Sirius legally own Black Manor? You can’t successfully bequest what you don’t own. Maybe his mother didn’t leave it to him, but the charms put on it by his father make it such that only he could find it. It was vacant for ten years after Mrs. Black died except for Kreacher.)
Assuming Sirius is the rightful owner, he says that he was “the last of the Blacks” (OotP pg. 79) – do these laws extend to relatives when the last of a family dies? If the primogenitor laws apply (or if there is no will), will the closest blood relatives be next in line? That would be the Black sisters – Bellatrix Lestrange, Andromeda Tonks, Narcissa Malfoy, in that order. But under Muggle law (at least in America) Bellatrix would be disqualified from inheriting anything from him because she killed him: a person cannot benefit from his or her own wrong doing. (Or since Sirius was a wanted criminal will that rule not apply? Could he be killed with immunity because he was an escaped prisoner from Azkaban?) Lucius Malfoy also cannot benefit because he participated in the attack, and that may disqualify his wife Narcissa from inheriting since he may then have an interest in the property depending on the marriage laws in JKR’s world; he would at least indirectly benefit from his own wrongful actions. Also, Narcissa may have played a role in arranging the attack in the Department of Mysteries (getting information from Kreacher about Harry going there) and so may be legally culpable for the results of the subsequent attack. That leaves Andromeda Tonks. It is not clear if she is dead but Sirius thinks she is; if she is dead, her successor in interest would stand in her shoes, which would be Nymphadora.
7) Can anyone in the wizarding world find Black Manor? It is unplottable property, but that only means that Muggles can’t find it (OotP pg. 115). But that does not mean that people in the wizarding world can’t find it. Owls carrying the post could find it (OotP pg. 160, 180), and Dumbledore didn’t want too many owls swooping around the square (OotP pg. 99) drawing attention. Obviously no Ministry of Magic authorities have found it or Sirius’s vault at Gringotts yet. Dumbledore is the Secret Keeper for the Order and so no one can find its headquarters without a personal note from him (OotP pg. 115), but that does not apply to Kreacher who was already there and he has had contact with the Malfoys. Sirius offered Black Manor to the Order for use as headquarters (OotP pg. 79), but that does not necessarily mean he offered ownership. Even if Sirius left it to Dumbledore or another member of the Order for use by the Order, could they still use it as a safe house since Kreacher may have told the Malfoys about it? (Does Kreacher’s obligation not to divulge information about Black Manor still apply now that the last of the Blacks is dead?) In earlier days, did Sirius’s mother invite the Malfoys or Lestranges over for dinner so that they would know where it is, or does the charm work against them now? Or would whoever inherits it still need a charm to find it and to get in? Can Kreacher get them in? If not, Dumbledore might just smile and say, ”Fine, let the Wizarding Probate Court give his property to whomever they wish.” But would the Order keep using Black Manor regardless of their legal rights? Maybe. Dumbledore does later refuse to be arrested quietly.
8) Who gets Kreacher? Is he free now that the last of his family has died? If so, no one inherits him. Or are there special rules for who gets house elves? (According to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander worked for two tedious years in the Department of House-Elf Relocation. So maybe something different might happen to Kreacher.) Or are house elves just like any other property and subject to being inherited (I can hear Hermione screaming already)? And why did Kreacher refer to Fred as “young Master” (OotP pg. 108) and then George as ”its twin, unnatural little beasts they are?”
9) What happens to Buckbeak? He is under a death sentence, so if the authorities find him, what happens? Will the Order just hide him?
10) What about Sirius’ vault at Gringotts? He inherited money from his uncle Alphard (OotP pg. 111). Harry’s name is now somehow on Sirius’s account (when he paid for Harry’s Firebolt in Harry’s name, although I don’t quite understand how that worked). Does this mean that it is now joint property and automatically go to the survivor, Harry? No bequest would be needed.
11) Does the Ministry even know that Sirius is dead? In OotP, only children, the members of the Order and those Death Eaters who were present when Sirius fell through the veil know that. There is no body, and Fudge is not likely to accept the word of a Death Eater or a member of the Order or children on anything, let alone that a wanted criminal went through that veil. He wouldn’t take Dumbledore’s and Harry’s word in GoF that LV was back. Of course, there may be a more receptive Minister of Magic in HBP. But if the wizarding community doesn’t know Sirius is dead, no laws of inheritance would kick in.
Unfortunately, we can’t answer these questions because JKR makes the laws in her world. We will just have to wait and see what happens in the HBP.