fee tail – a legal or equitable estate in lands that is heritable only by specified descendants of the original grantee, enduring until its current holder dies without issue, at which time it reverts to the original donor or his heirs

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fee tail:

1. An estate that is heritable only by specified descendants of the original grantee, and that endures until its current holder dies without issue (e.g., “to Albert and the heirs of his body”).  *  Most jurisdictions — except Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island — have abolished the fee tail. — aka entailed estate; estate tail; estate in tail; estate in fee tail; tenancy in tail; entail; feodum talliatum.  See ENTAIL; TAIL. [1]

1. A legal or equitable estate in which lands and tenements are given to one and the heirs of his body begotten, in other words, an estate of inheritance which is to pass by lineal descent only. 19 Am J2d Est § 45.

An estate resulting from the application of the Statute de Donis to the conditional fee. 19 Am J2d Est § 45.

The name was borrowed from the feudists, among whom it signified any mutilated or truncated inheritance from which the heirs general were cut off, or, as some say, because ownership of the subject was cut in two parts, and the other remaining as a reversion in the donor. Gannon v Albright, 183 Mo 498, 81 SW 1162.
     See barring the entail; common recovery; fine to bar entail; Statute de Donis. [2]

1. An estate in land that is given to a person and her lineal descendants only, the heirs in general being deprived of any interest in the estate.  In the absence of lineal descendants, the estate reverts to the donor.  A fee tail estate given only to the donor’s female lineal descendants is called a fee tail female; a fee tail estate limited to the donor’s male lineal descendants is called a fee tail male.
     See entail.  See also estate of inheritance; heirs of the body; reversion. [3]

     Excerpt from 1 Stephen’s Commentaries on the Laws of England 150 (L. Crispin Warmington ed., 21st ed. 1950):

     “The old legal estate tail was throughout its history invariably associated with family settlements, and in particular with marriage settlements. . . . Medieval landowners sought to achieve [familial continuity and status] by perfecting a single estate which in itself would conform to three requirements:

(1) While it should be an estate of inheritance it should devolve on lineal heirs only, and not on collaterals — in other words that it should descend only to the heirs of the body of the first grantee.

(2) As a corollary, the estate should be such that if at any time the first grantee’s issue should fail the estate itself should come to an end and the land revert to the original settlor or his heirs.

(3) No owner of the estate for the time being should have power to dispose of the land in such a way as to prevent it descending on his death to the next heir of the body of the original grantee.

    All this was attempted by limiting land, not to ‘A and his heirs,’ which would give A a fee simple, but to ‘A and the heirs of his body.” [4]

     Excerpt from Thomas F. Bergin and Paul G. Haskell, Preface to Estates in Land and Future interests 30, 32 (2d ed. 1984):

     “If we cannot resist the temptation to say that De Donis permitted the creation of tailor-made estates, we can at least argue that it is not a pun.  Our word ‘tailor’ and the word ‘tail,’ as used in ‘fee tail,’ come from the same  source the French tailler, to cut.  The word ‘tail’ in ‘fee tail’ has nothing to do with that which wags the dog.  The estate in fee tail was a cut estate — either cut in the sense that the collateral heirs were cut out, or cut in the sense that the estate was carved into a series of discrete life-possession periods to be enjoyed successively by A and his lineal heirs. . . .  We know of no state in the United States that recognizes the estate in fee tail in its strict 1285-4472 form.  Wherever it is recognized, the tenant in tail in possession may disentail it by simple deed.” [5]

Various Types of Fee Tail Estates:

fee expectant – a fee tail created when land is given to a man and wife and the heirs of their bodies.

fee tail general (16c) A fee tail that is heritable by all of the property owner’s issue by any spouse.  *  Formerly, a grant “to A and the heirs of his body” created a fee tail general.

fee tail special (17c) A fee tail that restricts the eligibility of claimants by requiring a claimant to prove direct descent from the grantee and meet the special condition in the grant.  *  For example, the words “to A and the heirs of his body begotten on his wife Mary” meant that only descendants of A and Mary could inherit; A’s children by any other wife were excluded. An estate tail special could also be restricted to only male or only female descendants, as in “to A and the heirs male of his body.”


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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.

[4]: 1 Stephen’s Commentaries on the Laws of England 150 (L. Crispin Warmington ed., 21st ed. 1950).

[5]: Thomas F. Bergin and Paul G. Haskell, Preface to Estates in Land and Future interests 30, 32 (2d ed. 1984).


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