In 1066, William the Conqueror united all of England under his rule. The foundation of William’s new reign was the legal principle of “allodial title.” To William, as he brought the concept from Normandy, simply meant that the land of England was now owned by him as sovereign with no duties or obligations of service, tax or allegiance. William, thus owned the land of England by hereditary right. His divine right so to speak. Yet, William fully realized the obvious – what could one King do with that much land? William wanted allegiance from land owners of large estates, not one big national farm. Hand in hand with allodial title, or allodium was the Norman principle of feodum. Feodum was the concept that the King, who held allodial or final, top dog title could allow a tenant to possess the land in exchange for certain rights and obligations. More on this later, but as time went on, the tenant-in-chief could transfer session to another sub tenant and that sub tenant could do the same. All tenants owed allegiance and services to the sub-tenant above them who was called a mesne lord. Yet, the buck stopped with the King who did not owe anyone anything.
Qualifed male sons, heirs, were hard to come by in William’s times and even harder to keep alive in the 14th century. It was then that the bubonic plague broke out. The plague still exists and a recent case illustrates the challenge to transfer of estates the disease caused. In 2012, near Bend Oregon, Paul Gaylord noticed that his beloved cat, Charlie, had a bulge in its neck. Upon investigation, he discovered that a mouse was lodged in the Charlie’s throat. Paul attempted to help poor Charlie by removing the mouse but Charlie scratched him and ran away. The next day Charlie was dead and Paul felt horrible. He was later rushed to the hospital with a diagnosis of the bubonic plague mostly like from the plague’s bacterial carriers on a flea, on the mouse, in the throat of the cat. Paul lived but spent nearly one month in a coma but lost all of his fingers and toes. Again near Bend Oregon, a teen age girl contracted the plague after a hunting trip.
Clearly, one must be careful in Bend Oregon. However, in both cases, the plague was contracted in rural areas after exposure to animals. In the Middle Ages, estate owners and their sons were also working on the estate, in rural areas and with exposure to animals. Without access to modern medicine, the estate owners and the male heirs contracted and died from the Plague in devastating numbers.
I contend that the Black Death, the bubonic plague, was the best thing that ever happened to estate planning. Just as Paul Gaylord in Bend Oregon discovered, the plague was carried by rodents carrying fleas carrying bacteria. In the 1300s had a lot of rats. Some of which traveled in ships that traveled throughout Europe from Central Asia, where the disease is believed to have originated. Without the benefit of modern medicine, the victims of the plague died within a few days or weeks and by the tens of millions throughout Europe. The Black Death is believed to have killed between 30% and 60% of the population depending on geographic area.
For tenants who possessed only seisin, this was a genuine problem. Not only in terms of the tenants own agonizing death and that of his family. The plague created a legal problem. Under William’s imported version of property law and in the event a tenant with seisin died, he could pass his right to seisin to a qualified heir. In time, transferring seisin to a male heir was allowed. Yet, without a male heir, seisin would “escheat.” Escheatment is another Norman word and simply meant seisin would transfer back to the Crown and the legal title of the land and seisin would reunite with the king.
Escheatment still exists is the law today. If an American dies without a Will and no intestate heirs exist, the property of the decedent “escheats” to the government.
In Washington, the Revised Code 11.08.140 reads as follows:
Escheat for want of heirs.
Whenever any person dies, whether a resident of this state or not, leaving property subject to the jurisdiction of this state and without being survived by any person entitled to the same under the laws of this state, such property shall be designated escheat property and shall be subject to the provisions of RCW 11.08.140 through11.08.280.
And if one was to read the provisions of RCW 11.08.140 through 280, this would be found:
Escheat property—Records of department of revenue—Public record information.
All records of the department of revenue relating to escheated property or property about to escheat shall be a public record and shall be made available by the department of revenue for public inspection. Without limitation, the records to be made public shall include all available information regarding possible heirs, descriptions and amounts of property escheated or about to escheat, and any information which might serve to identify the proper heirs.
(To Be Continued)