[SPOILER ALERT: Details below from Downton Abbey Season 3 + Ep. 1, Season 4.] In a post last year, I explained The Entail, Primogeniture, and Why Matthew Inherits Downton Abbey. But the intricacies of noble (and royal) inheritance never end, and Downton Abbey’s fourth season raised new questions. During Season 3, Matthew invested some money in Downton Abbey, and in exchange, Lord Robert gave him half ownership. So what happens to Matthew’s half interest now that he’s dead?
The answer starts with Robert. He doesn’t own Downton Abbey the way most people own real estate. Most people own real estate in “fee simple,” which means they can sell it, permanently. But because of the entail (as explained in the earlier post), Lord Robert only owns a “life estate” in Downton Abbey. The property automatically passes on to his entail-chosen heir when he dies, so all he can sell is ownership during his own lifetime. In other words, if Robert sells all his rights to Joe Schmoe, Joe owns Downton Abbey during Robert’s life. When Robert dies, Joe’s ownership ends, as Downton transfers to Robert’s entail-chosen heir. (By the way, Robert can’t sell his title, Earl of Grantham.)
So when Robert sold Matthew a half interest in Downton, he was really selling a half interest in his life estate. Matthew’s rights would end on Robert’s death, as the property transfers to Robert’s entail-chosen heir. That was a originally a technicality, since Matthew himself was the heir. The deal just gave him some control over Downton a bit early (and also rescued the estate from financial ruin). But with Matthew’s death, his ownership transfers to his own heir — and there’s no ancient entail or other restriction on Matthew’s recently purchased rights. Whoever inherits from Matthew, through garden-variety inheritance rules, gets exactly what Matthew himself owned: a half interest in Downton Abbey that continues until Lord Robert dies.
So who inherits from Matthew? If it’s his widow Mary, then for the remainder of Lord Robert’s life, Mary and Robert are half owners. If it’s Matthew and Mary’s baby, George, then the little guy becomes the half owner. In that case, George’s guardian would probably exercise his rights while he’s a minor. In the first episode of Season 4, we can’t tell who will become the guardian, Mary or Robert himself. But it doesn’t matter because, by the end, we learn that Matthew wrote a will leaving all his property to Mary. (I don’t know why a will was necessary. Even without one, the surviving spouse would generally inherit.)
Mary, then, shares half ownership of Downton Abbey with her father, Robert, so long as he lives. When Robert dies, all rights transfer to Baby George. Of course, if George is still a minor, Mary might then take full control as his guardian, until George grows up.
Baby George himself, of course, only gets a life estate in Downton Abbey. The entail continues …
- Highclere Castle (April 2011), by Richard Munckton from Windsor, Melbourne, Australia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
- Coronet of a British Earl, by Sodacan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenses.
© 2014 by David W. Tollen