Escheat

From Academic Kids

Escheat is an obstruction of the course of descent and the consequent reversion of property to the original grantor. At common law there were two main ways this could happen.

  • If you were convicted of a felony, in English law, your property was forfeit to the Crown upon conviction. If you were executed for the crime, your heirs were ineligible to inherit it from you. Avoiding this result is the chief import of the passage in Article 3 § 3 of the United States Constitution which states that attainders for treason do not give rise to forfeiture or "corruption of blood."
  • If you have no heirs to receive your property by the laws of intestacy, however they may operate in your locality, any property you leave at death is forfeit to the government. This result can be avoided if the decedent makes a will, although theoretically if none of your will beneficiaries come forward to claim their bequests then an escheat may nevertheless occur.

In English law, the doctrine of escheat has been replaced in most cases by bona vacantia, so that property owned by an intestate deceased with no living heirs passes into the ownership of the Crown without an escheat taking place. Similary where a corporation is dissolved any property belonging to that corporation passes as bona vacantia.

Escheat can still occur if, after property has passed on an insolvency or bankruptcy, to the Crown the Official Solicitor disclaims the property. This is very common (affecting a few hundred properties a year) where freehold property passes bona vacantia but is encumbered by onerous leasehold properties. The disclaimer of the Official Solicitor destroys the freehold, so that the land ceases to have a freehold estate and becomes land held by the Crown in demesne.

Until the Land Registration Act 2002 this meant that the land would cease to be registered land, acting as a slow leak of property out of registration.

Escheat can also occur when an entity (such as a bank) holds money or property (such as an account in that bank) and the property goes unclaimed. In many jurisdictions, if the owner cannot be located, such property can be revocably escheated to the government.

Feudalism

In terms of Feudalism in England, escheat was when the tenant of a fief died without an heir or committed a felony. The fief reverted back to ownership of the King for one year and one day (by right of primer seisin, since all property belonged to the King in a Feudal system), after which it reverted back to the original lord who had granted it. The king took particular interest in this as a source of revenue starting with Henry III.

From the 12th century onward the crown paved the way for escheators (those who managed escheats), with one escheator per county established by the middle of the 14th century. Escheators reported to the Exchequer. Upon learning the death of a tenant the escheator would hold an "inquisition" to learn if the king had any rights to the land, and if there was any doubt the escheator would seize the land and refer the case to Westminster where it would be settled, ensuring that not one day's revenue would be lost. This would be a source of concern with land owners when there were delays from Westminster.

References

  • S.T. Gibson, "The Escheatries, 1327-1341", English Historical Review, 36(1921).
  • John Bean, The Decline of English Feudalism, 1215-1540, 1968.
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