Escheat (law Fr. eschet, from eschoir or echoir, to fall out, or lapse), a failure in the regular descent of lands whereby the fee reverts to the original grantor or his heirs if they can be found, and if not, then to the sovereign, who, according to the feudal tenure, was the original source of title. Such a failure may occur for the want of heirs, or of such heirs as can inherit the particular estate. This could rarely happen as respects an absolute estate in fee, inasmuch as heirs may be sought to the remotest degree of collateral consanguinity on failure of lineal descendants; but it is not un-frequent where the estate is limited, as in the case of a marriage settlement by which the estate is to descend to the issue of the marriage, or of an estate tail by which a limitation is made to the heirs of a man's body or other specified heirs. In these and analogous instances, upon the failure of the heirs designated, although there may be others capable of inheriting generally, the title to the land reverts to the grantor if no other provision has been made in the deed creating the estate. The escheat in such a case is said to be propter defectum sanguinis.
It may also occur by an obstruction of the descent propter delictum tenentis, that is, when there has been a conviction of felony; in which case, according to the old phraseology, there was a corruption of blood, so that the man thus convicted was deemed in law to have no heirs. A distinction was made between treason and other felonies. In the former case forfeiture to the crown intervened and prevented the escheat of the lands to the original proprietor; in the latter, the lands of the felon were intercepted by the crown for a year and a day, and then escheated to the lord of the fee. By statute 54 George III., c. 14.5, no attainder for felony except treason and murder is now permitted to defeat the right of the heir or other person who would by law be entitled to the estate, except during the life of the offender. By the common law bastards were not deemed to have any heirs except of their own bodies, for being without lawful parentage, they can have no collateral kindred; therefore upon the death of a person of illegitimate birth, leaving no issue and without will, his lands escheated. So in the case of a man dying intestate leaving only alien relatives; as they could not inherit, his lands would escheat.
Formerly it was held that there could be no descent even to natural-born subjects, between whom and the deceased there were lineal or collateral alien ancestors through whom they would be obliged to claim; but the statute 11 and 12 William III., c. 6, provides that an intermediate alien ancestor shall not impede the descent to one otherwise capable of inheriting. - The law of escheat in the United States varies from the English in several particulars. In New York, and generally in the other states, the ultimate property to lands is deemed to be in the people; and whenever in any private ownership there is a failure of descent by want of heirs, the property escheats to the people, or, as is more commonly said, to the state. The escheated lands are to be held, however, subject to all the trusts, encumbrances, etc, that they would have been had they descended; and authority is given to the courts of the state to direct a conveyance to the parties equitably entitled thereto. Conviction of any criminal offence except treason produces no forfeiture of lands or personal property; and where the punishment is imprisonment for life, the convict is deemed civilly dead, and his heirs take by immediate descent as they would upon his natural death.
In the case of outlawry for treason there is a forfeiture of lands to the state during the life of the offender. The lands of a person dying intestate who is illegitimate do not necessarily escheat, but descend to his mother if living, or if she is dead, to the relatives on the part of the mother. As estates tail do not exist in the United States, many of the questions which arise in England upon the failure of particular heirs do not occur here. Properly speaking, an escheat to any private individual is unknown to our law. Not only feudal incidents, but the theory upon which they were founded, have been abrogated. In respect to aliens, a statutory provision similar to what has been enacted in England, as above mentioned, removes all disability of inheriting by reason of an intervening alien ancestor. Where property is purchased by an alien, or has been otherwise acquired, as by claim of inheritance, there being no other heirs, although by operation of law it escheats to the state, yet is his title good until, divested by some proceeding on the part of the state to enforce the escheat; that is to say, it is valid against all other claimants, and even against the state itself until judgment has been rendered by some court declaring the escheat.
In many of the states alienage of heirs is no longer a ground of escheat, aliens being allowed by statute to take by purchase or inheritance without restriction or impediment.