There are two fundamental doctrines underpinning English land law: the doctrine of tenure and the doctrine of estates. Tenure deals with the question of the terms on which land is held; while estates deal with the question of the duration for which the land is to be held.
In England, each land parcel must have a freehold owner and if the individual owner cannot be traced, the ownership is held by the Crown.
Before 1925 there were a number of freehold estates but not all of them could be freely brought or sold. There were three main classifications of freehold estates: the fee simple, the fee tail and the life estate.
A fee simple is virtually a perpetual estate. “Fee” means “can be inherited” and “simple” means “by anyone”. A fee simple estate is freely transferable by the holder and on the death of the holder it will pass to his heir under his will or intestacy.
The fee simple absolute may continue indefinitely as there is no time limit on the enjoyment of the land other than the requirement that there is a successor to the original fee simple owner who can take.
A fee tail is an estate which continues only so long as the original holder or one of his direct lineal descendants survives. It was designed to keep land in the family. Since 1996 no new fees tail can be created. Any attempt to create a fee tail today will be deemed an absolute gift.
A life estate lasted for life only. This was generally for the life of the holder but could be for the life of another (a grant to A for the life of B). A grant for the life of another is known as an estate pur autre vie.
Today it is still possible to have fee tail estates and life estates, but they can only exist behind a trust.
Land may also be held under a leasehold estate and so there will be two estates in the same land: the freehold and the leasehold.
At one time the law recognised only the freehold estates. Terms of years, or leases, developed outside this system. Originally, they were not regarded as property but as personal contracts binding only on the parties. Only much later were they protected by the law against third parties and became regarded as estates in land.
A leasehold estate must have a fixed maximum duration. This maximum duration may be fixed from the outset, as in a lease for 99 years, or may have a duration capable of being rendered certain, as in a lease from year to year where either the lessor or lessee may render the maximum duration certain by giving notice to terminate the lease.