Define: Legitimate Child

Legitimate Child
Legitimate Child
Quick Summary of Legitimate Child

A legitimate child is born to parents who are legally married to each other, and is considered their lawful child with certain legal rights and privileges that an illegitimate child may not have.

What is the dictionary definition of Legitimate Child?
Dictionary Definition of Legitimate Child

A child is considered legitimate if their parents are legally married. For instance, John and Jane are married, and their daughter Lily is considered legitimate. On the other hand, Tom and Sarah are not married, so their son, Jack, is not considered legitimate. These examples demonstrate that a child is only considered legitimate if their parents are legally married, while a child born to unmarried parents is not considered legitimate.

Full Definition Of Legitimate Child

The concept of a “legitimate child” has deep historical roots and varying legal implications across different cultures and legal systems. This overview explores the historical context, legal definitions, social implications, and contemporary perspectives on the status of legitimate children. We will examine the evolution of legitimacy from ancient times to modern society, highlighting key changes and their impact on family structures, inheritance rights, and social status.

Historical Context

Ancient Civilisations

In ancient civilizations, legitimacy was often tied to inheritance and the continuity of familial lines. In ancient Rome, for example, legitimate children were those born to legally married parents, and they were entitled to inherit their father’s estate. The Roman concept of patria potestas (father’s power) ensured that only legitimate children had legal recognition and rights within the family structure. Similarly, in ancient Greece, legitimacy was crucial for maintaining the purity of family lines and securing property succession.

Mediaeval Europe

During the mediaeval period in Europe, legitimacy continued to be a significant factor in determining inheritance and social status. The Church played a central role in defining and enforcing the concept of legitimate birth. Canon law dictated that only children born within wedlock were considered legitimate and could inherit property and titles. This period also saw the development of laws and customs aimed at protecting the rights of legitimate children, while those born out of wedlock, or “bastards,” were often marginalised.

Legal Definitions and Implications

Common Law

Under common law, particularly in England, the status of a legitimate child was historically tied to the marriage of the parents. The presumption of legitimacy was a legal principle that assumed a child born to a married woman was fathered by her husband, unless proven otherwise. This principle aims to protect the family unit and ensure clarity in inheritance matters. Legitimacy was essential for children to claim rights to their parent’s estates and titles.

Civil Law Systems

In civil law systems, such as those in many European countries, legitimacy has similarly been linked to marriage. However, these systems often provided more detailed regulations concerning the rights and recognition of legitimate children. For instance, the Napoleonic Code in France established clear guidelines for legitimacy and inheritance, which influenced many other legal systems worldwide. Civil law systems typically include specific provisions for the recognition of paternity and the rights of children born within and outside of wedlock.

Social Implications

Family Structure

The concept of legitimacy has profound implications for family structure. In traditional societies, legitimate children were seen as rightful heirs and bearers of the family name. This status granted them certain privileges and social recognition that illegitimate children lacked. Family honour and continuity were closely tied to the legitimacy of offspring, which often influenced marital practices and societal norms around family life.

Inheritance Rights

One of the most significant implications of legitimacy has been its impact on inheritance rights. Legitimate children typically had unquestioned rights to inherit their parent’s property and titles. This legal advantage ensured that wealth and power remained within the family lineage, reinforcing social hierarchies. In contrast, illegitimate children often faced legal barriers and societal stigma, limiting their ability to inherit and impacting their social standing.

Contemporary Perspectives

Legal Reforms

Over the past century, significant legal reforms have reshaped the concept of legitimacy and the rights of children. Many jurisdictions have moved towards recognising the equal rights of all children, regardless of the marital status of their parents. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Family Law Reform Act 1987 abolished the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children concerning inheritance rights. Similar reforms have been enacted in many other countries, reflecting changing societal attitudes towards family and parenthood.

Social and Cultural Shifts

Modern societies have witnessed substantial shifts in attitudes towards legitimacy. The traditional stigma attached to illegitimate children has diminished, and there is growing recognition of diverse family structures. Single-parent families, cohabiting couples, and same-sex parents are increasingly accepted, and the legal system has adapted to provide equal protection and rights to all children. These changes reflect broader cultural shifts towards inclusivity and equality.

Case Studies

United Kingdom

The UK’s approach to legitimacy has evolved significantly. Historically, legitimacy was crucial for inheritance and social standing. However, the Family Law Reform Act of 1987 marked a turning point, ensuring that all children, regardless of their parents’ marital status, had equal rights to inherit from their parents. This reform aimed to eliminate the discrimination faced by illegitimate children and promote fairness and equality within the family law framework.


In France, the Napoleonic Code established a clear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, influencing many other legal systems. However, modern French law has moved towards greater equality. The Civil Code now provides equal rights to all children, and recent reforms have focused on simplifying the recognition of paternity and ensuring that children born outside of marriage have the same legal protections and rights as those born within marriage.

Challenges and Controversies

Cultural Resistance

Despite legal reforms, cultural resistance to the equal treatment of legitimate and illegitimate children persists in some societies. Traditional views on family structure and inheritance continue to influence attitudes and practices. In certain cultures, the concept of legitimacy remains deeply ingrained, and children born outside of marriage may still face social stigma and discrimination.

Legal Inconsistencies

While many countries have reformed their laws to promote equality, inconsistencies and gaps remain. Some jurisdictions still have remnants of outdated laws that differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate children in specific contexts, such as inheritance or nationality. These inconsistencies can create confusion and perpetuate inequality, highlighting the need for further legal harmonisation.


The concept of a legitimate child has undergone significant transformation over the centuries. From its roots in ancient civilizations to its redefinition in modern legal systems, legitimacy has played a crucial role in shaping family structures, inheritance rights, and social status. Contemporary legal reforms and changing social attitudes have moved towards greater equality and recognition of all children, regardless of their parents’ marital status. However, challenges and cultural resistance remain, underscoring the ongoing need for advocacy and reform to ensure that all children are treated fairly and equally.

Future Directions

Advocacy for Legal Reforms

Continued advocacy is essential to address remaining legal inconsistencies and ensure that all children, regardless of their legitimacy status, have equal rights and protections. Legal frameworks must be regularly reviewed and updated to reflect changing societal norms and values, promoting fairness and equality for all.

Promoting Social Acceptance

Efforts to promote social acceptance and reduce stigma are crucial in changing attitudes towards legitimacy. Educational campaigns, community initiatives, and supportive policies can help shift cultural perceptions and create a more inclusive and accepting society for all children.

Supporting Diverse Family Structures

Recognising and supporting diverse family structures is vital in contemporary society. Policies and practices that accommodate various family arrangements, such as single-parent families, cohabiting couples, and same-sex parents, can ensure that all children receive the support and protection they need to thrive.

By addressing these future directions, societies can continue to progress towards a more equitable and inclusive recognition of all children, ensuring that legitimacy no longer serves as a barrier to rights and opportunities. The journey towards full equality for all children is ongoing, and collective efforts are necessary to achieve lasting change.

Legitimate Child FAQ'S

A legitimate child is a child who is born to parents who are legally married to each other at the time of the child’s birth.

Legitimate children have the same legal rights and privileges as any other child, including the right to inherit from their parents and the right to financial support.

In some cases, a child born out of wedlock can be considered legitimate if the parents later marry and take steps to legitimize the child, such as through a legal acknowledgment or adoption.

In most cases, a parent cannot completely disinherit a legitimate child, as they are entitled to a portion of the parent’s estate under the laws of intestate succession.

In general, a legitimate child has the right to seek visitation or custody rights with their parents, and these rights are typically determined based on the best interests of the child.

A legitimate child can only be removed from a parent’s custody in extreme cases where the child’s safety and well-being are at risk, and this decision is typically made by a court.

In some cases, a legitimate child may be adopted by someone other than their biological parents, but this typically requires the consent of the biological parents or a court order terminating their parental rights.

Yes, a legitimate child is entitled to financial support from both of their parents, and child support obligations are typically determined based on the income and resources of each parent.

Yes, a legitimate child is typically entitled to inherit from a deceased parent’s estate, either through a will or through the laws of intestate succession if the parent died without a will.

In some cases, a legitimate child may be entitled to citizenship or immigration benefits based on the status of their parents, but this can vary depending on the specific laws and regulations of the country in question.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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