How old did you have to be…?
It’s a common question, and yet another one landed in The Legal Genealogist‘s emailbox first thing this morning:
How old did someone have to be to buy land in (some common law jurisdiction) in (some early year)?
Now you might think this is an easy question. And in one sense it is.
In theory, anyone could buy land at any time at any age.
In practice, anyone could own land at any time at any age.
And, in practice, anyone could acquire land at any time at any age.
But buying land was a little more complicated.
English common law never imposed an age for owning land. A newborn baby could own land the instant the child was born, acquired by inheritance from a father or grandparent who died before the birth.
You’ll actually see provisions in wills that specify legacies to “the child my wife now carries” — usually with the proviso that the child had to survive and saying where the legacy should go if the baby didn’t live. And there’s even an express reference in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England to “lands devised to such unborn son of a feme-covert”1 — meaning lands left in a will to go to the as-yet-unborn son of a married woman.2
So even a baby could acquire land — most commonly by inheritance or by gift.
In general, management of the land would be in the hands of a guardian until the child came of age,3 and a decision by a guardian to sell the land of a minor typically required court approval. A minor under the age of 21 couldn’t sell his own land on his own say-so.4
But buying land added an additional wrinkle: age did impact the legal competence of a person to enter into an agreement — a contract — to buy or sell things: “an infant can neither aliene his hands, nor do any legal act, nor make a deed, nor indeed any manner of contract, that will bind him.”5
The hitch was that a minor had the right to disavow just about any contract he or she entered into during minority once the minor reached full age, and that specifically included any contract to buy land: “An infant may … purchase lands, but his purchase is incomplete : for, when he comes to age, he may either agree or disagree to it, as he thinks prudent or proper, without alleging any reason…”6
And, if that happened, the seller would have to take the land back — and pay back the purchase price.
Bottom line: Anyone could buy land at any time at any age.
But most sellers wouldn’t sell to someone who was underage without some very good reason for believing that the sale wouldn’t be disavowed when the buyer came of age.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Land buying age,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 7 June 2021).
- William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Second: Of the Rights of Things (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1771), 174; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 7 June 2021). ↩
- See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 483, “feme covert.” ↩
- See generally Chapter 17, “Of Guardian and Ward,” in Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: Of the Rights of Persons, 7th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1775), 460-466; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 7 June 2021). ↩
- See ibid., at 463 (“A male … at twenty-one may aliene his lands, goods, and chattels. A female … at twenty-one may dispose of herself and her lands”). “Aliene” in this context means sell. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 59, “alien or aliene.” ↩
- Chapter 17, “Of Guardian and Ward,” in Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: Of the Rights of Persons, at 465. “Infant” in this context means a minor, not a baby. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 619, “infant.” ↩
- Chapter 17, “Of Guardian and Ward,” in Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: Of the Rights of Persons, at 466. ↩