Murky Estates: Fees, Fee Tails, Female Tails & Entails



19 February 2014

We all know what a “fee” is. Well forget that definition. Where estates are concerned, the word “fee” comes from a totally different place. It actually springs from the same root as other two other quaint relics of the Middle Ages: the words fief and feudal.

According to Black, under the relatively modern English system of land tenure, fee signifies “the highest and most extensive interest [one] can have in a feud" (which, in that vocabulary, means “an inheritable right to a piece of land, in exchange for rendering services”). In American law, Black tells us,  “an absolute or fee-simple estate is one in which the owner is entitled to the entire property, with unconditional power of disposition during his life and descending to his heirs and legal representatives after his death.”

However, someone who holds property in fee simple can choose to entail it—that is, saddle it with a limitation called a fee tail, at the time he passes it on. A testator might make that fee tail a female tail by limiting its inheritance to only female lines of descent. Or his entail my limit the property to a certain class of heirs, as in legal descendants who bore his own name.



Henry Campbell Black, Black’s Law Dictionary: Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, 4th ed. (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1951), 740–42 (“fee”) and 1624 (“Tail, Estate in”).