Fee Tail

Updated on May 3, 2024
Article byWallstreetmojo Team
Edited byAshish Kumar Srivastav
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

Fee Tail Meaning

A fee tail is a type of real estate property arrangement that restricts the inheritance of land to the grantor’s direct lineal descendants, typically their children and their descendants. This legal arrangement was historically used to keep family lands intact and prevent them from being divided or sold outside of the family lineage.

Fee Tail Meaning

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The significance of fee tails lies in their historical role in preserving family lands and their impact on the development of property law and inheritance practices. Limiting inheritance to direct lineal descendants made the property less likely to be sold or divided among heirs outside the immediate family. Moreover, fee tails often specified the gender of the heir, commonly favoring male descendants.

Key Takeaways

  • A fee tail is a legal arrangement that limits the inheritance and transmission of an estate or property to the direct descendants.
  • This arrangement restricts the inheritance of the property to a particular line of descendants.
  • Historically, fee tails arrangements safeguard family lands and wealth. However, they have become less prevalent in modern property law due to evolving inheritance practices and legal reforms.
  • While historically significant, it can also be restrictive, as it limits the flexibility of property owners to adapt to changing circumstances or choose different heirs, leading to its decline in usage in modern property law.

Fee Tail Explained 

Fee tail is a legal rule that keeps family land within the bloodline, allowing it to pass only to direct descendants. It is a legal concept deeply rooted in medieval England’s feudal society, tells the tale of property preservation, lineage control, and evolving legal systems. It emerged as a response to the need for aristocrats to maintain the integrity of their estates, which were a primary source of wealth and power during that era. In feudal England, land was not just property but a symbol of status and influence, making its careful management crucial.

As a legal instrument, the fee tail allowed landowners (grantors) to enact specific restrictions on the inheritance of their property. Most notably, they could designate that their land would pass exclusively to their lineal descendants, often their children and descendants. This mechanism, known as entailment, effectively curtailed the ability to freely sell or transfer the land. Doing so ensured that the land remained firmly within the family, preventing it from falling into the hands of outsiders or divided among heirs while also often favoring male heirs.

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The historical significance of the fee tail lies in its ability to preserve family-owned lands and maintain the status quo within the feudal system. It was a means of consolidating and perpetuating the concentration of land ownership among certain aristocratic families. While it achieved its intended purpose of safeguarding family estates, it also had drawbacks, including limiting the owner’s control and flexibility over their property.

As societies evolved and economic structures shifted away from feudalism, the fee tail began to lose its practicality and relevance. Many jurisdictions reformed or abolished it, favoring more straightforward forms of property ownership, such as fee-simple estates, which allowed for greater individual property rights and market-oriented transactions. Nevertheless, the fee tail remains a significant piece of legal history, representing an era when land ownership and inheritance practices vastly differ from what we see in modern legal systems today. It serves as a testament to the evolving nature of property law and its profound impact on society over the centuries.


Let us look at some examples to understand the concept better:


Imagine that Smith owns a large estate and wants to ensure that it stays within his family for generations. To achieve this, he creates a fee tail estate in his will. In his will, he specifies that his estate should pass to his son, John Smith, “and the heirs of his body.”

With this language, Smith has created a fee tail estate. This means that the estate will pass to John Smith and only to the direct descendants of John (his heirs) as long as they are biologically related to him. If John had children, they would inherit the estate. If John passes away without children, it could pass to his closest blood relatives, ensuring that the estate remains within the Smith family lineage. The estate would continue in this manner for generations, always passing to the direct descendants of John Smith, thus preserving the family’s connection to the estate over time. 

Example #2

In the context of the fee tail debate in colonial Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s personal experience provides an illuminating example. Jefferson was a proponent of fee tail abolition in 1776, and his stance had a practical basis.

Jefferson and his wife held 2,400 acres of land in fee tail. It ensured the property was entitled to specific heirs and could not be freely sold or transferred. In his case, this entailed land was held in his wife’s right. To unlock the economic value of this property without the constraints of the fee tail, Jefferson sought a private act from the colonial Assembly. This act would permit him and his wife to sell the entailed land. Also, replace it with fee-simple land of equal value.

This request for a private act to break the fee tail restrictions demonstrated the practical impact of the fee tail on Jefferson’s property rights. It also revealed that fee tail was not merely a symbolic or obsolete legal concept but had real economic consequences for property owners in colonial Virginia.

Fee Tail vs Fee Simple

The differences between the two are as follows:

BasisFee TailFee Simple
Inheritance and alienationA specific line of descendants inherits the property and cannot be freely sold or transferred outside that lineage without breaking the entail.Fee simple allows for unrestricted inheritance and alienation of the property. The owner can pass it on to anyone through a will or sell it without restrictions.
Future ownershipSpecifies who will inherit the property in the future, often limited to descendants.Does not specify future ownership, allowing for broader possibilities.

Fee Tail vs Life Estate

The differences between the two are as follows:

BasisFee TailLife Estate
Ownership durationThe ownership is meant to be passed down through a specific line of descendants indefinitely, potentially leading to perpetuity.Life estate provides ownership rights to an individual only for the duration of their life. Once the life tenant passes away, ownership reverts to a remainderman or the original grantor.
InheritanceIt determines who inherits the property based on a specific family lineage or descendants.A life estate typically designates a remainderman or specifies the future owner(s) of the property after the life tenant’s death.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is the significance of fee tail? 

Historically significant in property law, the fee tail ensured the preservation of family lands and wealth. It is done by limiting inheritance to specific descendants. It maintained the concentration of land within noble families during feudal times. However, its restrictive nature led to its decline as modern property law favored more flexible forms of ownership.

2. What are the risks of fee tail?

The primary risks associated with fee tail are its inflexibility, potential for family disputes, and limitations on property alienation. Fee tail restricts the owner’s ability to sell or transfer the property freely, hindering financial flexibility. Additionally, legal disputes may arise within the family lineage over who is entitled to inherit the property. Lastly, the technique’s historical significance lies in preserving family wealth, but it can also restrict an owner’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

3. What is a disentailing fee tail? 

A disentailing fee tail is also known as a disentailment deed or a deed of disentail. It is a legal instrument to remove or extinguish the restrictions a fee tail imposes. It allows the property owner to convert it into a fee simple. Also, granting them unrestricted control over the property, including the ability to sell or transfer it freely. Disentailment was a means to break the constraints of the fee tail and adapt to changing property ownership needs.

This has been a guide to Fee Tail and its meaning. Here, we compare it with fee simple and real estate, and explain its examples. You can learn more about it from the following articles –

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