Fee Tail Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Fee Tail, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Fee Tail?

n. Title to real property that can only be inherited by blood relatives. If no heirs “of his body” exist, then the title would revert to the descendants of the lord who originally granted title to the land, keeping the title within the family line. Trusts were eventually created in order to circumvent this “restraint on alienation” so that the land could be held in trust for another person to use. Fee tail is only of historic interest.

History and Meaning of Fee Tail

Fee Tail refers to a type of land ownership in which the title could only be inherited by blood relatives. The term "tail" here is derived from the old French word "tailler" meaning "to cut," and represents the notion of cutting off the estate from the previous holder's other heirs. A fee tail estate was granted from a lord to a tenant and would revert to the lord upon the death of the tenant without heirs. This enabled the lord to keep the land within his own family line.

Trusts were eventually created in order to avoid the restraint of alienation, which allowed the land to be held in trust for a different person to use. Fee tail is only of historic significance since most jurisdictions have abolished this type of estate ownership.

Examples of Fee Tail

  1. The English Magna Carta of 1215 contained a provision that granted free men the right to dispose of property only on the death of themselves and their heirs.
  2. In colonial America, the fee tail was common and was used to keep family estates intact.
  3. In the movie "Downton Abbey," the legal dispute over the ownership of the estate stems from a fee tail.

Legal Terms Similar to Fee Tail

  1. Life Estate - A type of estate ownership that grants an individual the right to use a property for their lifetime, but ownership reverts to the original owner or their heirs upon the individual's death.
  2. Estate in Trust - A type of property ownership where the property is held in trust and managed by a trustee until it is distributed to beneficiaries.
  3. Remainder Interest - A future interest in the property that an individual retains after selling or giving away the property.