Under English common law systems, fee tail (also known as entail) is a type of trust that is established by a settlement or deed in which the inheritance or sale of real property estate is restricted, preventing the sale of the property devised by a will, or alienated otherwise by the tenant within possession. Rather, the fee tail results in the property being automatically passed by operation of law to the pre-determined heir by means of a settlement deed.
The term of fee tail originates from Medieval Latin (“feodum talliatum”), which translates into “cut(short) fee”, which is opposed to the ‘fee simple’ in which there is not such restriction existing with the property, and the possessor holds an absolute property title that may be bequeathed or otherwise disposed of as the title holder determines. Meanwhile, in European countries and other regions, equivalent legal concepts currently exist, or have previously existed.
A fee tail provides the ability for a patriarch to perpetuate their blood line, honor, family name and armorials within an individual within a series of wealthy and powerful male descendants. Therefore, by retaining the estate within the hands of an heir, ideally in an pre-ordained and indefinite chain of succession, thus the power, wealth, and family honor of his own could not be dissipated among multiple male blood lines, which had become the circumstance in Napoleonic France. For instance, under the oerations of Napoleonoic Code, every child was given legal rights for inheriting equal shares of patrimony, thus, a family that previously owned a large amount of land, may be reduced after several generations to many smaller land holders or peasant farmers.
Therefore, it reaches true corporation where a person or legal body that continues without death may indefinitely hold wealth. Whereas, in the form of a trust, individual trustees might eventually die, but the trust will continue as replacements are appointed, ideally allowing the property to remain within the family blood line indefinitely. Near seamless successions had been conducted in England between patriarch to patriarch, but to enhance the smoothness of the transfer, the eldest son and the heir was often baptized with the Christen name of his father for many generations.
For instance, in the FitzWarin family, all of the eldest sons and heirs had been given the first name of Fulk. Upon the death of the current land baron and father, the barony, castle and lordship of the Whittington estate had transferred to the heir. This held true until 1420, with the death of the 7th baron, at which time, the estate was transferred to Elizabeth FitzWarin, the estate continued under this path until the 1600s.
In the U.S., the fee tail is currently only recognized by four states: Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine.
Grover, Christine (2013). “Edward Knight’s Inheritance: The Chawton, Godmersham, and Winchester Estates”. Persuasions. Jane Austen Society of North America. 34 (1). Retrieved 17 April 2015.