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It is historically the most common type of monarchy and remains the dominant form in extant monarchies. It has the advantages of continuity of the concentration of power and wealth and predictability of who controls the means of governance and patronage. Provided that the monarch is competent, not oppressive, and maintains an appropriate royal dignity, it also offers the stabilizing factors of popular affection for and loyalty to the royal family or dynasty. On the other hand, from time to time the crown is almost certain to descend to someone who is physically or temperamentally unfit to rule. Other alleged disadvantages are the inability of a people to choose their head of state, the ossified distribution of wealth and power across a broad spectrum of society, and the continuation of outmoded religious and social-economic structures mainly for the benefit of the monarch personally, along with the reigning dynasty and its supporters.
Theoretically, when the king or queen of a hereditary monarchy dies or abdicates, the crown is passed to the next generation of the family, usually the deceased monarch's oldest surviving child or oldest surviving son. If no qualified child exists, the crown may pass to a brother, sister, nephew, niece, cousin, or other relative, in accordance with a predefined order of succession, often enshrined in legislation. In theory, this process establishes who will be the next monarch beforehand and avoids disputes among members of the royal family. In practice, there is an almost irresistible drive amongst the claimants to the throne to compete, and wars of succession and assassinations have been commonplace, often sponsored by foreign powers hoping to gain an ally or weaken an opponent. Sometimes, a ruling dynasty can be entirely changed through conquest or revolution. These tendencies have recently abated as the trend since the 19th century has been towards constitutional monarchies in which the reigning monarch exercises little real power, and the throne is thus less sought after; the contest is instead over who is to be the head of government, and could range from selection in free, fair and frequent elections to coups d'etat and revolutions in which scores of people are killed, according to the political process and norms of the country.
Controversies are especially likely to arise when the last member of a reigning dynasty dies or abdicates, leaving no surviving child or other obvious successor, or when the rightful heir for any reason faces significant opposition. The country might resort to an election to choose a new monarch, who will then be the founder of a new dynasty; or the question may be resolved through force of arms.
In most current monarchies, the typical order of succession is based on a form of primogeniture, but there exist other methods such as seniority, tanistry (in which an heir-apparent is nominated from among qualified candidates) and rotation[clarification needed], which were more common in the past.
Historically, there have been differences in systems of succession, mainly revolving around the question of whether succession is limited to males, or if females are also eligible (historically, the crown often devolved on the eldest male child, as ability to lead an army in battle was a requisite of kingship). Agnatic succession refers to systems where females are neither allowed to succeed nor to transmit succession rights to their male descendants (see Salic Law). An agnate is a kinsman with whom one has a common ancestor by descent in an unbroken male line. Cognatic succession once referred to any succession which allowed both males and females to be heirs, although in modern usage it specifically refers to succession by seniority regardless of sex. Another factor which may be taken into account is the religious affiliation of the candidate or the candidate's spouse, specifically where the monarch also has a religious title or role; for example the British monarch has the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Elective monarchy can function as hereditary monarchy. A specific type of elective monarchy known as Tanistry limits eligibility to members of the ruling house. But hereditary succession can also occur in practice despite any such legal limitations. For example, if the majority of electors belong to the same house, then they may elect only family members. Or a reigning monarch might have sole power to elect a relative. Many late-medieval countries of Europe were officially elective monarchies, but in fact pseudo-elective; most transitioned into officially hereditary in the early modern age.