(Fr. tailler, to shorten). An inheritable estate which can descend to certain classes of heirs only. It is necessary that they should be heirs “of the body” of the ancestor, and these are proper words of limitation. It corresponds with the feudum talliatum of the feudal law. The estate itself is said to have been derived from the Roman system of restricting estates. 1 Spence, Eq. Jur. 21 ; 1 Washb. R. P. 66; 2 Bla. Com. 112, n. See, also, Co. 2d Inst. 838 ; Tudor, Lead. Cas. 607 ; 4 Kent 14 ; Chal. R. P. 259 ; and it is said to exist by virtue of the statute de doms; Crabb, R. P. § 971. See, generally, Wight V. Thayer, 1 Gray (Mass.) 286; Jewell v. Warner, 35 N. H. 176 ; Bone v. Tyrrell, 113 Mo. 175, 20 S. W. 796 ; Durant v. MuUer, 88 Ga. 251, 14 S. E. 612 ; Brown v. Addison Gilbert Hospital, 155 Mass. 323, 29 N. B. 625; Ray V. Alexander, 146 Pa. 242, 28 Atl. 888.
An estate-tail may be general, i. e. limited to the heirs of the body merely ; or special, i. e. limited to a special class of such heirs, e. g. heirs male or heirs female, or those begotten of a certain wife named; Newton v. Griffith, 1 H. & G. (Md.) 111. In the last case specified, if the wife died without issue, the husband was called tenant in tail after possibility of issue extinct.
In Pennsylvania, by statute, words which, at common law, would create a fee tail, are to be taken to create a fee simple.
Source: Bouvier’s Law Dictionary & Concise Encyclopedia, 3rd Revision
“The name fee tail comes from French tailler (to carve) and probably meant that the grantor was able to carve a fee to his exact prescription. THis carving could be carried to great lengths and the land could be limited to male descendants generally — fee tail male general; to female issue — fee tail female; or to issue of a specific wife — fee tail special. In the latter case, if the specified wife died, the holder of the estate was said to have a fee tale with possibility of issue extinct — a type of life estate.”
Source: John E. Cribbet, Principles of the Law of Property 47 (2d ed. 1975).
“If we cannot resist the temptation to say that De Donis permitted the creation of tailor-made estates, we can at least argue that it is not a pun. Our world ‘tailor’ and the word ‘tail,’ as used in ‘fee tail,’ come from the same source — the French tailler, to cut. The word ‘tail’ in ‘fee tail’ has nothing to do with that which wags the dog. The estate in fee tail was a cut estate — either cut in the sense that the collateral heirs were cut out, or cut in the sense that the estate was carved into a series of discrete life-possession periods to be enjoyed successively by A and his lineal heirs . . . We know of no state in the United States that recognizes the estate in fee tail in its strict 1285-1472 form. Wherever it is recognized, the tenant in fee in possession may disentail it by simple deed. In a number of states, the estate in fee tail has been abolished.
Source: Thomas F. Bergin & Paul G. Haskell, Preface to Estates in Law and Future Interests, 30, 32 (2d ed. 1984).