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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5 Responses to The Boring Truth About The Cestui Que Vie Act 1666

  1. barak667 says:

    Just curious. My understanding of the legal-speak supports your view point. However, I would think the proof would be in the pudding. Was there a honest disclosure of this law or was it passed quietly with little attention? Was court affordable as a recourse in 1666 to properly correct the living status? Was this a no hassle process or was there a bias to make the process difficult? In court, what were the results for most people, and did they have the same status as an estate holder or were they given a lesser degree of ownership. For example, a land patent granted by a king to be replaced by a common deed conveying rights to enjoy the land? Also, while I understand the basic reasons of the law from a practical perspective, did the presumtion of death set a precedent in law that significantly impacted the practice of common law by establishing this principle?

    • jasonloch says:

      Thank you for your comment! I’m afraid I can’t answer all of your questions (I’m not an expert in 17th-century trust law), but I’ll do my best.

      The passage of the Cestui Que Vie Act wasn’t particularly secretive, though the legislative process of the 17th century was far less transparent than it is today. For example, the general public did not have access to verbatim accounts of what was said in Parliament. The Journals of both Houses were public records, but they recorded decisions rather than debates. But this applied to all legislation, not just the Cestui Que Vie Act.

      It’s also important to note that the Cestui Que Vie Act 1666 was not particularly innovative. Indeed, the concept of a cestui que trust had been around since the Middle Ages. There were numerous pieces of cestui que-related legislation passed over the years, so the 1666 Act was simply another attempt at tinkering with an established practice. Even the notion of considering someone legally dead after seven years without contact wasn’t new, for that precept appeared in the Bigamy Act 1603. Nevertheless, a general seven-year-rule didn’t become official at common law until the case of Doe d. George v. Jesson in 1805.

      The Cestui Que Vie Act 1666 allowed people to recover their lands/tenements after a presumption of death by launching an action for recovery of the same. This would probably have been in the Court of Chancery, where proceedings were often cheaper and faster than in the common law courts. The level of hassle involved would likely have varied from case to case. For example, trying to prove that someone was still alive from letters alone would have probably been tricky, but if the person could be produced in court, that would likely have simplified things quite a bit.

      It’s also important to note that the Act was concerned with tenancy rather than ownership. So if someone with life tenancy was held to be dead under its provisions, the original landlord would simply be allowed to repossess the estate. The courts wouldn’t alter the terms of the tenancy itself.

  2. Which specific conspiracy are you referring to? You mention ‘conspiracy theory’ twice in your post? What is the ‘conspiracy’ you are referring to?

    • jasonloch says:

      As I said in the first paragraph, it’s the idea that Parliament used the Act to declare every person over the age of seven in the United Kingdom dead and lost at sea.

  3. Michelle M says:

    I am so pleased to find another sensible soul in this increasingly madcap world.

    I am truly shocked by the number of people who regurgitate the nonsense that this act declares everyone living (and yet to live it seems) in the UK lost at sea. Many are just repeating what they’ve heard from others.

    As a landlord myself, I can read this act in its old English and understand perfectly the intention behind it.

    There is no mention of anyone being lost at sea (only going beyond the sea i.e. to a foreign country). There is no mention of anyone being aged 7 or over (just of someone having vanished for seven years).

    It is as if the originator of this claim has some weird form of dyslexia where they have randomly taken words out of the Act, juggled them about and given it a whole new meaning.

    Now it may be that the government has at some later date done something using this Act to pull the wool over our collective eyes but the key is that this Act itself does not do what the Common Law Crazies claim it does.

    As with any aspect of the law, I am quite willing to concede they are correct, if they can produce the evidence that supports their assertion. But this Act is not that evidence

    I have bookmarked your page so that the next time I am in a heated debate with someone whose idea of producing evidence is pointing me to a video of some bloke on YouTube regurgitating the misinterpretation, I can counter with your article!

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