Estate, in law, the degree of interest or ownership that a person has on the property. The term “estate” is also used in a more general sense to denote the whole property possessed by an individual, for example, the estate of a deceased person. Sometimes debts are also included in this wide meaning, with all rights and duties regarded as a single entity. Estate in this sense of the total belongings of a person is divided into reality, or real estate, and personal estate (anything other than real estate, usually less permanent fixtures).
The term “estate”, in the sense of interest that a person has in the property, applies especially but not exclusively to reality. Much of the law of reality in England and the United States stems from the feudal institutions developed in England after the Norman Conquest (1066). The basic premise of feudalism was that the monarch enjoyed ultimate power over all the land in the realm. From the monarch, the lawful occupants and users of land had tenure, the right to occupancy and use, either directly or indirectly, through a lord. One’s tenure, or estate, determined one’s social status.
Estates are classified into two types: freehold and non-freehold. The freehold estates found in modern property law are further divided into the fee simple and the life fee. The fee simple estate is essentially absolute ownership of land, including the power to bestow by will or to sell it. The life fee estate is the right to control property during one’s lifetime only; the grantor of a life estate designates the party who is to come into possession on the death of the life tenant. A freehold estate in fee tail, or entail, is a grant to a person and his or her descendants forever in a direct line. The objective of entailing is to preserve family estates from the division.
Non-freehold estates, for the most part, are those established by lease of real property. Two common types are the estate for years and the periodic estate. In the former the right to occupy the reality terminates at a fixed time; in the latter, the lease period is for a definite term that is renewed automatically if neither party signifies an intention to terminate the tenancy.
Today the term “estate” generally refers to the property of every sort that is owned by an individual and that may be passed on to another at the owner’s discretion. A deceased person’s estate is disposed of according to law and to instructions given prior to death. An executor or administrator is responsible for carrying out the disposition of the estate. See Will.