The Boring Truth About The Cestui Que Vie Act 1666

WhatDoTheyKnow.com is one of my favorite sites. It’s an archive of requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and it’s fascinating to see what people are looking for. Some of the requests are downright bizarre. Recently, I noticed several that dealt with an obscure seventeenth-century statute known as the Cestui Que Vie Act 1666. The people making these requests seemed to believe that Parliament used it to declare every person over the age of seven in the United Kingdom dead and lost at sea, and they wanted guidance on how to prove that they are actually alive!

Needless to say, this interpretation of the Cestui Que Vie Act is balderdash. While it is a presumption of death statute, it’s nowhere near as sweeping as conspiracy theorists imagine. According to the Act’s preamble, there had been situations where tenants for life went abroad and effectively disappeared, causing headaches for the landlord and any reversioners.[1] Unless they could prove that the tenant was actually dead (which would be a tall order given the limits of long-distance communication in the seventeenth century), the estate would be stuck in legal limbo.

To avoid these problems, the Act allowed life tenants to be declared dead if they went missing overseas for more than seven years. The landlord or the reversioners could then launch an action to recover the estate. But if the tenant subsequently turned up alive, they could regain the estate along with damages. There’s nothing in the Act that declares everyone in the United Kingdom dead.

Conspiracy theorists also claim that the Cestui Que Vie Act was passed during the Great Fire of London (September 2-5, 1666). However, Parliament wasn’t in session then. It had been prorogued on April 23 and didn’t reconvene until September 18.[2] The Cestui Que Vie Act received Royal Assent on February 8, 1667 (though at the time, this was still considered 1666 since the new year began on March 25 rather than January 1), more than five months after the Great Fire.[3]

I find it astounding that something as innocuous as the Cestui Que Vie Act could become the focus of so much silliness. Mundus vult decipi…

NOTES

[1] Reversioners are individuals to whom the estate would revert after the expiration of the original lease.

[2] Lords Journal, 23 April 1666, vol. 11, 704-705.

[3] Lords Journal, 8 February 1667, vol. 12, 110.

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