Downton Abbey, the hit Masterpieces Classics show on PBS, highlights in the most glaring of ways one may hold title to real estate. The entail (or "fee tail") is a central theme to the show and a driver of practically every decision each character makes.
The purpose of a fee tail was to keep the land of a family intact in the main line of succession. As Downton Abbey excellently displays with the struggles of Robert and his family, the heir to an entailed estate cannot sell the land, or devise it to, for example, an illegitimate child. The complications arising from fee tails were an important factor in the life of many of the upper classes, highlighted very well with the 6th Earl of Grantham's family.
There are six ways the 6th Earl of Grantham could have held title to Downton Abbey as a present estate, each of which would have a drastically different effect on his family.
First, Robert could hold title in fee simple absolute. In other words, if Downton Abbey was left to Robert by the words "to Robert and his heirs, " then Robert owns the property in perpetuity with no restrictions whatsoever. He may leave the property to anyone he chooses, presumably Cora if she survives him, or if not then to his daughters equally.
All the other ways to hold present title to Downton Abbey have restrictions, in that the property cannot be sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated by the owner, but must pass by operation of law according to the language of the conveyance.
Second, Robert could hold title in fee simple determinable. The operative words would be "to Robert and his heirs for so long as…," "until…," "while…," or "during…." As long as whatever condition placed on the conveyance exists or is met, then title remains with Robert and whoever he names as heirs. A condition can be anything from requiring that a certain garden is maintained to preventing the Abbey from being used as a salon or parlor. Whenever the condition placed on the conveyance ceases or is no longer met, then title automatically reverts to the grantor who original conveyed title to Robert.
Third, title could be held by Robert as fee simple subject to condition subsequent. The conveyance would contain language such as "to Robert and his heirs but if…," "upon condition that…," or "provided that…." This is basically the same as fee simple determinable, with the added requirement that whenever the condition placed on the conveyance ceases or is no longer met, the grantor is entitled to retake the property but must make the effort to do so. This is called reentry.
Fourth, title could have been conveyed to Robert as fee simple subject to an executory interest. Again, this is basically the same as fee simple determinable, except that the person entitled to the real estate upon the ceasing of the condition is not the grantor but a third party. There are two ways to hold this type of estate. The first way is to provide that title automatically goes to the third party upon the ceasing of some condition, and the language necessary is "to Robert and his heirs for so long as… and if not, then to William. " The second way is to provide that title automatically goes to the third party upon the happening of some condition. The necessary language is "to Robert and his heirs, but if… then to William. "
Fifth, Robert could hold title as a life estate under the terms "to Robert for life. " This would be the most devastating to the 6th Earl of Grantham's family. A life estate is a way of holding title only while you are alive, and when you pass away title automatically passes to the chosen third party. If Robert held title to Downton Abbey as a life tenant, his family would be at the mercy of the chosen third party as to whether they could remain at Downton Abbey.
Finally, as is the case in the hit series, Robert holds title as fee tail. The conveyance language must have read something like "to Robert and the heirs of his body." In other words, Robert and his heirs remain the owner until his line dies out, at which time it reverts back to the grantor. In the early 20th century, the rule of primogeniture applied in England, meaning that "heirs of his body" referred to the oldest son. Without a son, one's line died out.
And that is precisely where the Crawley family finds themselves—in the unpleasant situation where the closest living male heir, a distant second cousin named Matthew Crawley, is the "heir presumptive" of the estate. Matthew is not the "heir apparent, " a topic explored at the end of Season 1 where viewers learned a son of Robert and Cora would replace Matthew as the heir.
For so long as there is not an heir apparent, this explains why Cousin Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham attempted to challenge the entail, so that the family would not be penniless if the heir decided to evict the daughters from Downton Abbey when Robert passed away.
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