Fee tail

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At common law, fee tail or entail is a restriction on the sale or inheritance of an estate in real property which prevents the property from being sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated, and instead causes it to pass automatically by operation of law to the property owner's heirs at law upon his or her death. The term fee tail is from Medieval Latin feodum talliatum, which means "cut-short fee".

The fee tail has been abolished in many jurisdictions. Its purpose was to keep family estates intact in the main line of succession. It also had the effect of disabling illegitimate children from inheriting. But it created complications for many propertied families, especially from about the late 17th to the early 19th century, leaving many individuals wealthy in land but heavily in debt, unable to sell any part of their land or even to offer the property as security for a loan. The nominal "owner" of the property in fact had the equivalent only of a life interest in it, with the remainder passing intact to the next successor or heir in law; any purported bequest of the land was ineffective.

General history[edit]

Traditionally, a fee tail was created by words of grant in a deed or will (where possible): "to A and the heirs of his body". The crucial difference between the words of conveyance and the words that created a fee simple ("to A and his heirs") is that the heirs "in tail" must be the children begotten by the landowner. It was also possible to have "fee tail male", which only sons could inherit, and "fee tail female", which only daughters could inherit; and "fee tail special", which had a further condition of inheritance, usually restricting succession to certain "heirs of the body" and excluding others. Land subject to these conditions was said to be "in tail" or in tail, with the restrictions themselves known as entailments.

Fee tail was formerly used during feudal times by landed nobility in order to create family settlements and to make certain that the land stayed "in the family". From the foregoing, attempting to mortgage land in fee tail would be risky and uncertain, since at the death of the owner the land passed by operation of law to children who had no obligation to the mortgage lender and whose interest was prior in right over the mortgage. Similarly, the largest estate an owner in fee tail could convey to someone else was a life estate, since the grantee's interest again terminated automatically when the grantor (the original owner) died. If all went as planned, it was impossible for the family to lose the land, which was the idea.

Things did not always go as planned, however. Owners of land in tail occasionally had "failure of issue"—that is, they had no legitimate children surviving them at the time of their own deaths. In this situation, theoretically the entailed land went back up and through the family tree to descendants of former owners who were entitled to inherit, or to the last owner in fee simple. This situation produced complicated litigation.

Fee tail was a device tuned to the needs of family settlements in the 13th century, but it was never popular with the monarchy, the merchants, or many entailed holders themselves who wished to sell their land. In more mercantile eras, fee tail became rare. As early as the 15th century, lawyers devised an elaborate action called "common recovery", which used collaborative lawsuits and legal fictions to "bar" a fee tail, i.e. remove the conditions of fee tail from land and enable its free conveyance in fee simple. In the 17th and 18th centuries the practice arose whereby a landed estate would be settled on a man for life, and thereafter to his eldest son in fee tail male; when the son came of age, he and his father together could bar the fee tail, and would then resettle the land on the father for life, then to the son for life, and then to his eldest son in fee tail male, at the same time making provision for the father's widow, daughters and younger sons. In this way an estate could stay in a family for many generations. It also had the advantage that if an heir appeared to his father to be irresponsibly spendthrift, the fee tail could be retained to protect the estate.


The Statute of Westminster II, passed in 1285, created and stereotyped this form of estate. The new law was also formally called the statute De Donis Conditionalibus (Concerning Conditional Gifts). Fee tail was abolished by the Law of Property Act in England (as a legal estate) in 1925.[1][original research?]

A fee tail can still exist in England and Wales as an equitable interest, behind a strict settlement; the legal estate is vested in the current 'tenant for life' or other person immediately entitled to the income, but on the basis that any capital money arising must be paid to the settlement trustees. A tenant in tail in possession can bar his fee tail by a simple disentailing deed, which does not now have to be enrolled. A tenant in tail in reversion (i.e. a future interest where the property is subject to prior life interest) needs the consent of the life tenant and any 'special protectors' to vest a reversionary fee simple in himself. Otherwise he can only create a base fee; a base fee only confers a right to the property on its owner, when its creator would have become entitled to it; if its creator dies before he would have received it, the owner of the base fee gets nothing.

The breaking of a fee tail was simplified by the Fines and Recoveries Act 1833,[2] which replaced the conveyance for making a tenant to the praecipe for suffering a common recovery. This was the usual preliminary to a recovery with a disentailing assurance, which had to be enrolled. The need for this to be followed by the fictitious proceeding of a common recovery was abolished.

The requirement that a disentailing assurance should be enrolled was abolished in 1926.[3] No new "fees tail" can now be created following the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996.[4]

An English example of a fee tail may be the main estates of the wealthy art collector Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (d. 1870). His only child was his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace, to whom he left as much of his property as he could. The main land holdings and Ragley Hall were inherited by his distant cousin, Francis Seymour, 5th Marquess of Hertford, descended from a younger son of the 1st Marquess who had died in 1794. Most of the 4th Marquess's art collection had been acquired by himself or his father, went to Wallace, and is now the Wallace Collection. Other works were covered by the fee tail, however, and passed to the 5th Marquess.

Another example was George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke, who died in 1827. He had quarreled with his eldest son and left his unentailed estate to his son by a second marriage.


Formedon (or form down etc.) was a right of writ exercisable by a holder in fee for claiming property entailed by a lessee beyond the terms of his feoffment.[clarification needed] A letter dated 1539 from the Lisle Letters describes the circumstances of its use:[5]

"I received your ladyship's letter by which ye willed me to speak with my Lady Coffyn for her title in East Haggynton in the county of Devon who had one estate in tail to him and to his heirs of her body begotten; and now he is dead without issue of his body so that the reversion should revert to Mr John Basset and to his heirs so there be no let nor discontinuance of the same made by Sir William Coffyn in his life. Howbeit Mr Richard Coffyn, next heir to Sir William Coffyn, claimeth the same by his uncle's feoffment to him and to his heirs so that the law will put Mr John Basset from his entry and to compel him to take his action of form down which is much dilatory as Mr Basset knoweth"


Main article: Tailzie

In Scotland, the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 (section 50) abolished all feudal tenures including the entail.[6] Today, the doctrines of legitim and jus relictae restrict owners from willing property out of their family when they die with children or have a surviving partner.

A Scottish example of fee tail is the case of Alfred Douglas-Hamilton, 13th Duke of Hamilton, who in 1895 inherited from the 12th Duke, his fourth cousin, who had attempted to marry his daughter to the heir.


In Ireland, section 13 of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2009 abolished the fee tail in Ireland and converted existing fees tail to fees simple.[7] For constitutional reasons, this section is subject to a saving clause which prevents the conversion of fees tail to fees simple where the protector of the settlement is still alive. Therefore, fees tail still exist in Ireland.

United States[edit]

The fee tail has been abolished in all but four states in the United States: Massachusetts, Maine, Delaware and Rhode Island. However, in the first three states, property can be sold or deeded as any other property would be, with the fee tail only applying in case of death without a will. In Rhode Island, a fee tail is treated as a life estate with remainder in the life tenant's children. New York abolished fee tail in 1782, while many other states within the U.S. never recognized it at all. In most states in the United States, an attempt to create a fee tail results in a fee simple; even in those four states that still allow fee tail, the estate holder may convert his fee tail to a fee simple during his lifetime by executing a deed.

In Louisiana, the common law concept of estates in land never existed. The concept of forced heirship and the marital portion protects force heirs and surviving spouses from total divestment of value of the estate of the decedent, who has a duty to provide for their care.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth[edit]

In the Kingdom of Poland and later in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, fee tail estates were called Ordynacja (landed property in fideicommis). Ordynacja was an economic institution for governing of landed property introduced in late 16th century by king Stefan Batory. Ordynacja was abolished by the agricultural reform in the People's Republic of Poland. Ordynat was the title of the principal heir of ordynacja.

According to the rules of ordynacja, which became a statute approved by the Sejm, the estate was not to be divided between the heirs but inherited in full by the eldest son (primogeniture).[8] Women were excluded from inheritance (Salic Law).[8] Ordynacja couldn't be sold or mortgaged.[8]

Ordynacja was similar to the French law of majorat or German and Scandinavian fideicommisses, and succession to such resembles that of British peerages.

Many Polish magnates' fortunes were based on ordynacja, among them those of the Radziwiłłs, Zamoyskis, Czartoryskis, Potockis and Lubomirskis. Most important ordynacja were veritable little principalities. The earliest and most extensive ordynacjas include:

Comparable devices in other legal systems[edit]

Other European legal systems had comparable devices to keep estates together, especially in Spain and Northern European countries like Prussia. They are derived from fideicommissum, a legal institution in Roman Law. Unlike most of the English aristocracy, the Prussian junkers supported fees tail, and succeeded in reinstating them in 1853, after they had been abolished in a recent Constitution. In Germany and Austria the "Familienfideikommiss" was only abolished in 1938, and in Scandinavia they persisted even later - a few old Swedish fees tail still remain in force, though no new ones may be established. For the law of German and Austrian fideicommissa in particular, an 862-page manual by the German legal scholar Philipp Knipschildt, entitled Tractatus de fideicommissis nobilium familiarum – von Stammgütern (De fideicommissis at Google Books), was the standard reference work. First published in 1654, this grand systematization of existing legal opinion was frequently reprinted and continued to be consulted until well into the 19th century.

Fees tail in fiction[edit]

Fees tail figure in the plots of several well known novels and stories, particularly in the 19th century. Among them:

Pride and Prejudice contains a particularly thorny example of the kind of problems which could arise through the entailing of property. Mr. Bennet, the father of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, had only a life interest in the Longbourn estate, the family's home and principal source of income. He had no authority to dictate to whom it should pass upon his death, as it was strictly arranged to be inherited by the next male heir. Had Mr. Bennet fathered a son it would have passed to him, but since he did not it could not pass to any of his five daughters. Instead, the next nearest male heir would inherit the property— Mr. Bennet's cousin, William Collins, a boorish minister in his mid-twenties. The inheritance of the Longbourn property completely excluded the five Bennet daughters, who were thus to lose their home and income upon their father's death. The need for the daughters to make a good marriage to ensure their future security is a key motivation for many episodes in the novel. Such fees tail typically arose from wills, rather than from marriage settlements, which usually made at least some provision for daughters.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Law of Property Act 1925 s.130
  2. ^ Fines and Recoveries Act 1833 s.15
  3. ^ Law Of Property Act 1925, s. 133.
  4. ^ Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 Schedule 1 Para 5
  5. ^ Byrne, Muriel St. Clare, (ed.) The Lisle Letters, 6 vols, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1981, vol.1, letter 1359, p.408, note 6
  6. ^ Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000, section 50.
  7. ^ Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2009, section 13.
  8. ^ a b c Peter Paul Bajer Short history of the Radziwill Family

Further reading[edit]

  • The Fee Tail and the Common Recovery in Medieval England 1176–1502, by: Joseph Biancalana, University of Cincinnati
  • Bell, William (1861). Dictionary and Digest, Law of Scotland, with Short Explanations of the most Ordinary English Law Terms (Revised and Corrected with Numerous Additions by George Ross ed.). Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute. p. 328. 
  • Shumaker, Walter A.; George Foster Longsdorf (1922). The Cyclopedic Law Dictionary (Second Edition by James C. Cahill ed.). Chicago: Callaghan and Company. p. 353.