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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part law French, even part Anglo-Saxon. And all confusing.

Reader Debbie Hadley wasn’t having any luck.

“I’ve spent the evening leafing through all kinds of texts on real property,” she said, but they weren’t helping her make sense of some language she encountered. Working through some land records, trying to link a father and son, she wasn’t clear just what was meant by this language in a deed:

“David Norman and Leah his wife are the true lawful and right owners of all and singular the said described land and premises and of every part and parcel thereof and are now lawfully seized and possessed of the same as a good perfect and absolute estate of inheritance in fee simple…”

She wondered whether the language explained how this couple came to own the land: “Does this mean David Norman came to own this land through inheritance? Or is this saying that his heirs are entitled to inherit the land from him? David and Leah are the grantors in this deed (Morris County, 1808), but I haven’t been able to locate a record to document how they came to own the parcel.”

Oh, man… Wouldn’t it be nice if our land-owning ancestors used language in their deeds that made it clear just how they acquired the land? If an estate of inheritance was one they inherited and an estate of purchase one they bought and so on?

Alas, The Legal Genealogist must dash any such hopes, because the language of the law is never quite so simple, or so useful to us as genealogists.

estate of inheritance

No, in this particular case, this distinction just means that the ownership of the land could be transferred by right of inheritance to David’s and Leah’s heirs. An estate of inheritance is defined as:

A species of freehold estate in lands, otherwise called a “fee,” where the tenant is not only entitled to enjoy the land for his own life, but where, after his death, it is cast by the law upon the persons who successively represent him in perpetuum, in right of blood, according to a certain established order of descent.1

You see, there are two basic types of estates in land: the freehold and the leasehold. A freehold is an “estate in land or other real property, of uncertain duration; that is, either of inheritance or which may possibly last for the life of the tenant at the least,”2 while a leasehold is an “estate in realty held under a lease; an estate for a fixed term of years.”3

But not all freeholds can be passed on — by will or by force of law — to the heirs. Some freeholds have a time limit, and the most common is the estate for life (life estate): a “freehold estate, not of inheritance, but which is held by the tenant for his own life or the life or lives of one or more other persons, or for an indefinite period, which may endure for the life or lives of persons in being, and not beyond the period of a life.”4

So an estate of inheritance is a landed estate (a piece of property) where the owner’s rights include the right to pass it on to the kids or other heirs after the owner dies. And, of course, the fee simple part means there aren’t any other limits on the owner’s rights: in American law, 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 upon his death intestate.”5

In other words, David and Leah owned all the rights there could be to the land, and were selling all those rights to the buyer. The deed says nothing about how they acquired the parcel — by gift, by inheritance, by purchase or some other way.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 436, “estate of inheritance.”
  2. Ibid., 520, “freehold.”
  3. Ibid., 697, “leasehold.”
  4. Ibid., 453, “estate for life” (emphasis added).
  5. Ibid., 481-482, “fee-simple.”
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