estate by the curtesy – an freehold estate owned by a wife, to which the husband is entitled upon her death, as a life estate

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estate by curtesy:

1. An estate owned by a wife, to which the husband is entitled upon her death.  [1]

1. See curtesy. [2]

tenant by the curtesy:

1. A life tenant who receives the estate from his deceased wife by whom he has had legitimate children.  * The children hold the remainder interest. [1]


1. At common law, a husband’s right, upon his wife’s death, to a life estate in the land that his wife owned during their marriage, assuming that a child was born alive to the couple.  This right has been largely abolished.  Traditionally, the full phrase was estate by the curtesy of England (or Scotland). — aka tenancy by the curtesy.  Cf. DOWER. [1]

1. The common-law right of a husband in his wife’s property which arises from the marriage.  An estate by the curtesy is either curtesy initiate or curtesy consummate. 25 Am J2d Dow § 2. [2]

1. The rights a husband had under the common law with respect to his wife’s property.  Today these rights have been modified in every state in various ways, but all states that retain curtesy in some from extend the same rights to both spouses.  Note that “curtesy” is not “courtesy.”
     Compare dower. [2]

     Excerpt from 2 Emory Washburn’s A treatise on the American Law of Real Proeprty 162-63 (4th ed. 1876):

     “An estate by the curtesy, or, as is more commonly called, by curtesy, is that to which a husband is entitled, upon the death of the wife, in the lands or tenements of which she was seised in possession, in fee simple, or in tail, during their coverture, provided they have had lawful issue born alive, which might have been capable of inheriting the estate.  It is a freehold estate for the term of his natural life.

Various Forms of Curtesy:

curtesy consummate:

1. The interest the husband has in his wife’s estate after her death. [1]

1. A common law estate for life of a surviving husband in all of the lands of his wife, subject to the same conditions requisite to the existence of curtesy initiate and the additional condition of the death of the wife.
     In other words, an estate by the curtesy initiate becomes an estate by the curtesy consummate upon the death of the wife. 25 Am J2d Dow § 2. [2]

curtesy initiate:

1. The interest the husband has in his wife’s estate after the birth of issue capable of inheriting, and before the death of the wife. [1]

1. At common law, a life estate of the husband in the real property of which his wife is seised of an estate of inheritance during the duration of the marriage, the conditions under which such an estate arises being the marriage, seisin by the wife, and birth of issue capable of inheriting. 25 Am J2d Dowj § 2.

As soon as a child was born, the father began to have a permanent interest int those lands of his wife in which she was seised of an estate of inheritance; he became one of the vassals of the lord’s court, did homage to the lord, and was called tenant by the curtesy initiate, and this estate being once vested in him by the birth of the child, was not suffered to determine by the subsequent death or coming of age of the child. See 2 Bl Comm 127. [2]


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[1]: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black, Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-61300-4

[2]: Ballantine’s Law Dictionary with Pronunciations Third Edition by James A. Ballantine (James Arthur 1871-1949).  Edited by William S. Anderson.  © 1969 by THE LAWYER’S CO-OPERATIVE PUBLISHING COMPANY.  Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 68-30931

[3]:  Ballantine’s Law Dictionary Legal Assistant Edition
by Jack Ballantine 
(James Arthur 1871-1949).  Doctored by Jack G. Handler, J.D. © 1994 Delmar by Thomson Learning.  ISBN 0-8273-4874-6.


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