General History/Entails in Regency England
I recognise that this may not be your area of speciality, but I can't find this information anywhere else. I'm writing a novel set in Regency England, where a property is entailed to male heirs, and following her only brother's death, the protagonist's uncle receives the estate and the income, and she is forced to leave her home and live with him. The central idea of the novel is that her uncle has killed her brother in order to receive the estate, and I was wondering: what would happen if she could expose the murder? Would she be able to regain her fortune, or would it be seized by the Crown?
Many thanks in advance.
ANSWER: Hi Alex,
A property held in fee tail would be governed by the terms of the terms of the deed itself. Typically, each person acquiring the property held a "life estate" in the property, meaning it was theirs to use for life. They could sell, give, or otherwise lose their life estate during their life, but upon their death, the property would revert to the next eligible heir.
Under British common law, there was something known as the "slayer rule." If a person killed someone, they would automatically become ineligible to inherit what they would otherwise. Assuming that applied to the situation you describe, the uncle would be ineligible to inherit the estate if it was proven that he murdered his brother. Application of the slayer rule would typically mean the estate would pass to the next eligible male hair, either the Uncle's son if he had one, or a younger brother. If none of those, the land would pass to a cousin, whoever was next in line based on the terms of the deed.
It would not go to a female, unless there was something in the deed that permitted that to happen. That would be highly unusual.
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QUESTION: Many thanks for your answer. Sorry to trouble you again, but there's another question arising from this I'm itching to ask. The uncle is her father's only brother, and her father had two children, the protagonist (female) and her murdered elder brother. The father's death takes place prior to the brother's murder. (Sorry if I'm being unclear here, names are something I'm working on!) In any event, the uncle, having only daughters himself, is the last male heir.
With no male heirs in the family after the uncle, would an entail naturally end, and allow a female to inherit?
If not, would it be possible for a fee tail to have a contingency plan for the lack of male heirs, stipulating for instance that the nearest female relative could inherit on condition she married into a suitable family, or that a female could hold it only until she produced a male heir? Could this be a "if all else fails" kind of measure, perhaps?
Once again, many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I truly appreciate it.
Typically, you find a male heir somewhere. If the father had two sons, one dead the other ineligible, and neither son had a living son, or grandson, then you go back up a generation to the father, and see if he had any brother. If those brothers had a descendant who is a male, he gets the estate. If no male descendants there, you go back yet another generation and look for descendants of any brothers. I know of at least one case where they had to go all the way to a 5th cousin to find an eligible heir.
As I said, the deed could be set up so that if no male heir was found then there could be some alternative like you suggest, allowing a female heir to inherit. But that would certainly not be the norm. I cannot say for certain whether any fee entail deed had such a provision. They might have. I'm just not that familiar with them. It would be unusual because estates normally came with titles that obligated the holder to serve the King in the military. Since a woman could not serve, this would be a problem.
It was possible to break a fee tail under certain circumstances. I think that if no male heir could be identified going all the way back to whomever created the entail, that would break it. At that point, it would be possible for a female to inherit the property. Of course, if she married the property would immediately transfer to her husband.