Rule in Shelley's Case

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Rule in Shelley's Case

An English common-law doctrine that provided that a conveyance that attempts to give a person a life estate, with a remainder to that person's heirs, will instead give both the life estate and the remainder to the person, thus giving that person the land in fee simple absolute (full ownership without restriction).

Although Wolfe v. Shelley, 1 Co. Rep. 93b, 76 Eng. Rep. 206 (C.P.), generally known as Shelley's Case, took place in 1581, the rule that made it famous had already been in existence for approximately 150 years. The rule was enacted to close a tax loophole that allowed people to circumvent an inheritance tax, known as a relief. Any person who received property by means of inheritance was required to pay the relief to the feudal lord. Attempting to save their clients money, scriveners (drafters of written instruments such as deeds and wills) came up with a plan to allow a person who would otherwise have been an heir to receive property by means of a conveyance rather than by direct inheritance. The judges quickly saw through this attempt to circumvent the tax law and adopted the rule to close the loophole. As stated in Shelley's Case, the rule held that "when the ancestor by any gift or conveyance takes an estate of freehold, and in the same gift or conveyance an estate is limited either mediately or immediately to his heirs in fee or in tail, that always in such cases, 'the heirs' are words of limitation of estate, and not words of purchase" (statement of defendant's counsel, probably Sir Edward Coke).

The effect of the rule was to frustrate the intent of an owner of real property who transferred her estate to another by gift or conveyance and, by the same instrument, gave a remainder to the heirs of the transferee. In that circumstance the rule would ignore the intention of the owner and give the transferee the estate in fee as opposed to a life estate. For example, in the conveyance "Owner of Blackacre conveys it to X for life, remainder to X's heirs," X would not just get a life estate as the owner desired; instead, due to the rule, X would receive both the life estate and the remainder (intended for X's heirs) in fee simple absolute as the rule worked a merger of the life estate and the remainder. Consequently, the rule effectively changed the conveyance to "Owner to X and his heirs."

Even after the relief tax was abolished in 1660 by the Statute of Tenures (12 Ar. 2, ch. 24) scriveners were careful to draft documents so as to avoid application of the rule, which still survived even though the reason for its existence had disappeared. In 1770 William Murray, Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of the Court of King's Bench declared that the rule was "a strange law" and eradicated it (Perrin v. Blake, 1 F. Hargrave, Collectanea Juridica 283 [K.B.]). Lord Mansfield was an innovative jurist and experienced great frustration with the feudal peculiarities that existed in English land law. Unlike many of his fellow jurists, he was deeply concerned with giving legal meaning to the intention of testators and owners of property. As a result of these dynamics, the Court of Exchequer Chamber reversed Lord Mansfield's decision in Perrin and reinstated the Rule in Shelley's Case in 1772, holding that the rule "was a Rule of Law, not a rule of construction; that is, it was explicitly recognized to be applicable regardless of intention." Consequently, this ancient rule lived on until the growing desire to give effect to the owner's intention could be stifled no longer, and Great Britain decisively and finally abolished the rule in the Law of Property Act in 1925 (15 & 16 Geo. 5, ch. 20, § 131). Today, only a handful of states in the United States continue to give effect to the rule; the vast majority prefer to give effect to the intention behind the words used to transfer property.

Further readings

Hoover, Valoria C. 1991. "Property Law: The Rule in Shelley's Case Rears Its Ugly Head." University of Dayton Law Review 17 (fall).

Orth, John. 1989. "Requiem for the Rule in Shelley's Case." North Carolina Law Review 67 (March).

Reppy, William A., Jr. 1997. "Judicial Overkill in Applying the Rule in Shelly's Case." Notre Dame Law Review 73 (November).

Cross-references

Feudalism; Mansfield, William Murray, First Earl of.