entail, in law, restriction of inheritance to a limited class of descendants for at least several generations. The object of entail is to preserve large estates in land from the disintegration that is caused by equal inheritance by all the heirs and by the ordinary right of free alienation (disposal) of property interests. Legal devices similar to entail were known in Roman law and in all the countries of Europe. In England the entail became common in the early 13th cent., and in its most usual form was a conveyance by a grantor (owner) of real property to a grantee and the "heirs of his body," i.e., his lawful offspring, in successive generations. In the inheritance the rule of primogeniture was observed. The subsequent development of the entail reflects a continuing struggle between the effort to preserve large estates and the need for free alienation. By the mid-13th cent. the courts interpreted the birth of a live baby as the satisfaction of a condition that vested the grantee with the power of alienation. This result was overcome by the statute De donis conditionalibus [conditional gifts] (1285), which gave effect to the grantor's intent. In time the grantee was able to get control of the property despite the statutory prohibition by use of the fine and other technical legal devices. Current English law permits the holder of entailed property (either real or personal) to dispose of it by deed; otherwise the entail persists. In the United States for the most part entails are either altogether prohibited or limited to a single generation.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.