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In a common law doctrine, escheat refers to the transferring of property between an individual upon death with no heirs of the state. Escheat serves to make sure the property does not simply stay in limbo with no ownership being recognized. Originally, the term applied to cases where legal interests within land had been destroyed by the operations of law, therefore, the land ownership would immediately revert to the superior feudal lord.


The term ‘escheat’ originated from Latin ex-cadere, translation being ‘fall-out’. In mediaeval French, escheoir resulted in a sense of feudal estate within land and the fall-out of possessing by family to that of an overlord.


Within feudal England, the situations referred to as escheat consisted to the tenant of a property passing away with no heir or if a felony was committed by the tenant. In these situations, the fee of tenant in chief would permanently revert back to the Kings demesne, where it would become a tenantless piece of land once again. Although, the fee could be recreated by enfeoffment of another follower of the King. Whereas the deceased were subinfeudated by the tenant in chief, the fee had temporarily reverted to the crown in the length of one year and a day by rights of the primer seisin, then it would escheat back to the overlord who originally granted the property to the deceased. Escheat was used as a revenue source during the period of Henry III.


All of England’s land was claimed by William the Conqueror as personal property under allodial title during the Norman Conquest of England. Therefore, the monarch had become sole ‘owner’ of all land within the kingdom. This is a position that continues to exist today. The land would be granted out by William to favored followers, thus making them the tenants in chief, under different feudal land tenure contracts. These type of tenures, including the highest of “feudal barony”, had never gave ownership over the land, but ownership over the right of using the land. Therefore, as ownership of estate in land.

When an individual becomes tenant in chief, with rights to the land but not ownership, they are known as ‘land-holders’ or the ‘tenants’. If land is freely held, the holdings are heritable by the legal heir of the holder. In situations with no legal heir, the fief was considered to have ceased legal entity as the land is tenantless, technically reverting ownership to the immediate overlord or crown.

There re two key methods for an escheat under English common law:

  1. An individual’s property becomes escheated due to being convicted of a felony. In the event of an execution, the persons heirs were attainted, therefore, found ineligible to inherit the land. In the majority of jurisdictions under common law, this form of escheat has been eliminated.
  2. An individual did not have a heir to receive the land upon death.

“Escheat”. Retrieved 2 November 2011.