The difference at law
A colleague posed the question to The Legal Genealogist yesterday: was it possible for a minor to buy land?
And despite my enormous predilection for using the answer “it depends” when it comes to legal matters,1 the answer here is really simple.
In some cases, the minor would have an out from the deal.
So… what’s the difference?
A legal agreement — whether it’s a contract to buy land or even entering into a marriage — is void if it’s illegal when it occurs and nothing can be done to fix it to make it legal.5 And it’s voidable if it “may be avoided, or declared void” but is “not absolutely void, or void in itself.”6
In the context of a marriage, if the law said a boy couldn’t marry his first cousin, and he married his first cousin, there’s nothing that’s going to change that marriage from illegal to legal except a change in the law. That marriage would be considered void — illegal from the get-go with no chance of it becoming legal. But if the law said he had to be 21 to marry and he married at age 19, the marriage would be voidable until he turned 21, and if he didn’t do something to have it declared invalid before then it would be a perfectly lawful marriage.
Looking at a land deal, then, a minor certainly could (and can) buy land. There’s nothing illegal about the purchase of land, so it’s not void. But the minor might be able to disclaim the purchase before reaching full age — land generally wouldn’t be considered “indispensable … for the sustenance of human life.”7 So he could try to have the deal declared invalid on the grounds that he was under age when he bought the land.
That doesn’t mean he’d always win. In Tennessee, for example, the legal rule divided contracts by minors into three categories: “void, voidable, or valid, according as they shall appear prejudicial, uncertain, or beneficial. If to his benefit — as for necessaries — they are valid; if of an uncertain character as to benefit or prejudice, they are voidable only at his election after coming of age.”8 If it could be shown that the contract was to the minor’s benefit — for example, the sales terms were reasonable for the time and place and the minor needed the land to live on or needed to farm or otherwise use it to make enough money to live — then the deal might still be upheld. Those are all factors for a seller to think about.
So… could a minor buy land? Yes. That means we can’t, as genealogists, always assume that the buyer in every single land transaction is an adult.
The better question, really, is whether a seller would be willing to sell to a minor.
And that, my friends, is where I get to give my favorite answer: it depends.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “A voidable issue,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 25 Aug 2022).
- See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Snippet: those -ix endings!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 26 Apr 2022 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 25 Aug 2022). ↩
- You saw that coming, right? ↩
- See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 805, “necessaries.” ↩
- See e.g. Lawrence v. Gardner, 1 Root 477 (Conn. Supreme Court, 1792) (“The contracts of minors are not void, but are only voidable at their option, when they come of full age”). And see Grace v. Wilber, 10 Johns. 453, 461 (NY Supreme Court of Judicature, 1813) (“It would be against the settled principles of law to hold an infant to any contract … not made on account of necessaries”). ↩
- Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1226, “void.” ↩
- Ibid., 1227, “voidable.” ↩
- Ibid., 805, “necessaries.” ↩
- Robinson v. Coulter, 90 Tenn. 705, 708 (1891). ↩