The Shape of Property

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Title

The Shape of Property

Description

The Article concludes that our property system, inefficient as it is, has been shaped by organic forces over the centuries. The numerus clausus, then, is a valid description of the current shape of property law, but it does not arise in the manner that many academics and commentators claim.

Creator

Chad J. Pomeroy

Publisher

Seton Hall Law Review

Date

2014

Relation

Seton Hall Law Review

Format

RFC3778

Language

English, en-US

Type

Text

Identifier

44SetonHallLRev797

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Text

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The Shape of Property
Chad J. Pomeroy*
I. INTRODUCTION................................................................................. 797 
II. VARIATION IN PROPERTY LAW AND THE NUMERUS CLAUSUS .......... 800
A. Heterogeneity in Property Law ........................................... 800 
B.  The Numerus Clausus ....................................................... 806 
1. The Numerus Clausus as an Exception to
Heterogeneity .............................................................. 807 
2. Shortcomings of the Current Numerus Clausus
Theory .......................................................................... 811 
III. THE HISTORY OF PROPERTY ........................................................... 819
IV. CONCLUSION .................................................................................. 830

I. INTRODUCTION
“Shape” means “a mode of existence or form of being having
1
identifying features” or the “form or embodiment” of something.
Form and feature, in turn, arise from pressure and time. Property
law has a shape all its own: it exists as a unique body of law, with
distinctive conventions and rules. And that shape, those conventions
and rules, derive from a variety of pressures that have, over the
centuries, molded property law into its present form. This Article
seeks to understand and explain the shape of a particular area of
property law—that of property forms.
Of course, this attempt does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, the
shape of property law and the source of that shape has received quite
a lot of attention recently, and this Article is a direct response to that
discussion. In particular, Thomas W. Merrill and Henry E. Smith
have written extensively about the numerus clausus principle, a term
2
which means “the number is closed.” This is a shorthand way to
*

Assistant Professor of Law, St. Mary’s University School of Law. J.D., Brigham Young
1
University; B.A., Brigham Young University. For these, and other, definitions of
“shape,” see Shape, MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY, http://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/shape (last visited Jan. 28, 2014).
2
See Thomas W. Merrill & Henry E. Smith, Optimal Standardization in the Law of
Property: The Numerus Clausus Principle, 110 YALE L.J. 1, 4 (2000).

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describe the fact that property can only exist in certain standardized
3
Merrill and Smith have done much to popularize this
forms.
concept as a unique and “deeply entrenched” element of property
4
law. They argue that this limitation on the number of property
forms has always existed in the underlying fabric of our common law
and take the term from civil law countries, in which forms of
5
ownership are clearly limited to those permitted under civil code.
They claim that the numerus clausus describes and explains why
property law is so narrowly proscribed when it comes to common law
6
restrictions on property types.
Further, Merrill and Smith have discussed, at great length, their
view of what has led to this underlying limitation in property law.
They argue that the pressure that created the numerus clausus effect
comes from a self-imposed informational cost-benefit analysis
wherein courts habitually focus on whether a new property type
provides informational benefits that exceed the marginal
7
informational costs thereof.
This description of and explanation for property law has
generated significant interest over the last decade or so. Many recent
articles have focused on the concept of the numerus clausus, and
either built upon or criticized the informational burden analysis
8
developed by Merrill and Smith to explain it. Among those articles
are two of mine, which built upon the numerus clausus as posited by
9
Merrill and Smith. In A Theoretical Case for Standardized Vesting
Documents (“SVD”), I first argued that this same cost-benefit analysis
should apply to vesting documents, a very specific area of property
10
law. Later, in Why is Property so Hard? (“WPH”), I expanded the
3

See generally id.; Thomas W. Merrill & Henry E. Smith, What Happened to Property
in Law and Economics?, 111 YALE L.J. 357 (2001).
4
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 20.
5
See id. at 4.
6
See id. at 3–4. This is in stark contrast to many other areas of property law. See
infra notes 29–36 and accompanying text.
7
Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 68–70.
8
See, e.g., Hanoch Dagan, The Craft of Property, 91 CAL. L. REV. 1517 (2003);
Nestor M. Davidson, Standardization and Pluralism in Property Law, 61 VAND. L. REV.
1597 (2008); Henry Hansmann & Reinier Kraakman, Property, Contract, and
Verification: The Numerus Clausus Problem and the Divisibility of Rights, 31 J. LEGAL STUD.
373 (2002); Daphna Lewinsohn-Zamir, The Objectivity of Well-Being and the Objectives of
Property Law, 78 N.Y.U. L. REV. 1669 (2003); Christina Mulligan, A Numerus Clausus
Principle for Intellectual Property, 80 TENN. L. REV. 235 (2013).
9
See Chad J. Pomeroy, Why is Property so Hard?, 65 RUTGERS L. REV. 505 (2013)
[hereinafter Pomeroy, WPH]; Chad J. Pomeroy, A Theoretical Case for Standardized
Vesting Documents, 38 OHIO N.U. L. REV. 957 (2012) [hereinafter Pomeroy, SVD].
10
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 985. Therein, documents that pass title

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argument, contending that the informational burden analysis
proposed by Merrill and Smith ought not to be limited to vesting
11
heterogeneity. The argument was that the informational pressures
identified by Merrill and Smith are present in all areas of property
law and, therefore, the informational benefit analysis driving the
numerus clausus ought to act on the many, many areas of variability
12
laced throughout property law.
I continue to believe in the validity of these normative
arguments. I have come to believe, however, that the contrast
between these arguments and the actual shape of property law belies
the underlying validity of Merrill and Smith’s theses regarding the
numerus clausus. More specifically, the informational burden
analysis propounded by Merrill and Smith does seem to explain the
peculiar homogeneity associated with the fixed number of property
forms available throughout our system. But that analysis should also
have the same effect on other areas of property law, and it clearly has
13
not.
I believe that this failure to affect other areas of property law
indicates that the numerus clausus does not arise due to the type of
informational burden analysis propounded by Merrill and Smith. In
other words, if the courts truly adopted and applied the type of
informational burden analysis described by Merrill and Smith, then
they would do so in all areas of property law. Property law is
14
notoriously haphazard, in contrast to other areas of the law, and
courts’ failure to remedy this heterogeneity (despite the same
efficiency pressures extant in connection with property form issues)
indicates that this judicial weighing of informational benefits and
burdens simply does not occur in any area of the law. Part II lays the
foundation for this argument in greater detail by reviewing the
from one party to another were referred to as “vesting documents,” and I focused on
the similarity between the informational burdens associated with new property types
and the heterogeneity costs associated with the many types of vesting documents that
exist throughout the country (“vesting document heterogeneity”). See id. at 985–87.
11
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 538–40.
12
Property is “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and
exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any
other individual in the universe.” 2 WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES *382. And
the heterogeneity of property law—that is, the different shape of the law in different
jurisdictions—interferes with one’s ability to exclude because it creates confusion
and interferes with the informational role of property. See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note
9, at 521.
13
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9; Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9.
14
Property law is a jumble of rules that have “been heaped one upon another
for a course of seven centuries, without any order or method . . . .” 2 WILLIAM
BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES *382–83.

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numerus clausus and contrasting Merrill and Smith’s contentions
with my own previous analyses.
So if the pressure to create informational efficiencies does not
lead to the numerus clausus, what does? Part III answers this
question by focusing on the historical setting in which property law
developed. Often overlooked, legal history frequently explains why
15
and how the law developed. I believe that is the case here. Rather
than arising from subtextual analyses regarding informational
burdens, homogeneity of property forms arises from a series of
16
These
ancient statutes meant to protect governmental revenue.
statutes narrowed the type of property that one could create in order
to restrict the manner in which people were able to transfer land,
thus ensuring that the English crown’s transfer tax stream would not
be jeopardized.
The Article concludes that our property system, inefficient as it
is, has been shaped by organic forces over the centuries. The
numerus clausus, then, is a valid description of the current shape of
property law, but it does not arise in the manner that many
academics and commentators claim.
II. VARIATION IN PROPERTY LAW AND THE NUMERUS CLAUSUS
In understanding the shape of property law, particularly as it has
been studied and discussed recently, it is important to set the
numerus clausus in its proper context. In particular, property law is a
varied and confused area of the law, and the numerus clausus is a
17
peculiar exception to this.
A. Heterogeneity in Property Law
As I discussed in WPH, property law is a difficult and somewhat
dry subject because of its heterogeneity—there are numerous rules,
and most of these rules differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In
that article, I created a taxonomy that expressed this unique level of
18
In particular, a
variability and described how it manifests itself.
cohesive taxonomy allowed me to identify categories of property law
15

See, e.g., Randall T. Shepard, The Importance of Legal History for Modern
Lawyering, 30 IND. L. REV. 1 (1997).
16
Aside from historical support, see infra Part III, this proposition is also simple
and logical. See id. I am, indeed, tempted to propose a sort of legal Occam’s Razor
stating that, among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis that is attributable to
governmental desire for revenue should be selected.
17
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 525.
18
See id.

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and to examine how that law fractured throughout common law
jurisdictions, a fruitful assessment, particularly when contrasted with
19
other areas of the law.
The taxonomy I created was no great feat of originality and
attempted to balance simplicity with depth by focusing on most
20
lawyers’ shared background arising from first year property class. It
did so in chart form, setting forth the basics of property law as
21
follows:

This framework creates a consistent basis for comparison of the
defined elements of property law. For example, Merrill and Smith, in
their discussions of the numerus clausus, focus on the uniformity of
the “system of estates” (i.e., the types of property that are

19

See id. Creating a taxonomy of this sort is admittedly problematic, as the law is
constantly changing. See, e.g., John Edward Cribbet, Concepts in Transition: The Search
for a New Definition of Property, 1986 U. ILL. L. REV. 1, 1–5 (1986). See also Amnon
Lehavi, The Taking/Taxing Taxonomy, 88 TEX. L. REV. 1235, 1242 (2010) (citing
Abraham Bell & Gideon Parchomovsky, Of Property and Federalism, 115 YALE L.J. 72,
74–75 (2005) (discussing the types of pressures that cause different jurisdictions to
promulgate and enforce different property laws)). Nevertheless, I created such a
structure, believing that “a conceptual taxonomy of property law is ‘analytically and
jurisprudentially essential’ for an analysis [involving] a wide-reaching examination of
a potentially vast body of law.” Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 509 (quoting Amnon
Lehavi, The Taking/Taxing Taxonomy, 88 TEX. L. REV. 1235, 1242 (2010).
20
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 510.
21
This chart is taken directly from WPH. See id. It brings together many of the
basic elements of property law, from the fundamentals through land use. See id.
(citing JESSE DUKEMINIER ET AL., PROPERTY 18 (7th ed. 2010)). Of course, there are
many other legal concepts that could be included, and some of the concepts
identified could arguably be place elsewhere. But, ultimately, “perfection is not
necessary.” Id. at 511. All that is necessary is a consistent attempt to give “a
substantially coherent sense to what is undoubtedly a very muddy world.” Lehavi,
supra note 19, at 1278.

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permitted). Similarly, in WPH, I examined the heterogeneity of
23
24
“land transactions” and of “fundamentals.”
Engaging in this type of analysis, using the taxonomy presented
above as a consistent backdrop, crystallizes the contextual setting of
Merrill and Smith’s arguments and helps to explain why property law
25
is such a difficult area of the law.
Simply put, property is a
mishmash of rules, with little consistency and no real guiding
principles tying together the various jurisdictional rules and
26
preferences. This is despite the central role that property plays in
22

See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 23.
See generally Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 512–13. The discussion in WPH
regarding vesting documents was, in turn, based upon SVD. SVD focuses on vesting
documents, which would conceptually fall under “land transactions,” along with
other concepts like brokers, contracts of sale, and financing. See, e.g., DUKEMINIER ET
AL., supra note 21, at xviii–xix.
24
In particular, I examined “rights in property,” which is classified under
“fundamentals,” above. See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 514–16. The concept of
“rights in property” pertains to the claims that accrue to individuals based upon their
ownership of property and is distinct from “system of estates,” which focuses on the
accepted characteristics of particular property types. See id. at 514 (citing Merrill &
Smith, supra note 2, at 5–6). I make this point in WPH by focusing on third party
creditor rights in property. See id. at 514–16. That is, all common law jurisdictions
recognize roughly the same suite of property types (possessory interests, concurrent
interests, future interests); but there is significant variation from jurisdiction to
jurisdiction with respect to a creditor’s right to execute upon those acknowledged
property types. See id.; see also COMM’N ON THE BANKR. LAWS OF THE UNITED STATES,
H.R. REP. NO. 93-137, pt. 1, at 16 (1973); R. Paul Barkes, Jr., Untwisting the Strong-Arm:
Protecting Fraud Victims from Bankruptcy Courts, 31 LOY. L.A. L. REV. 653, 671 (1998)
(“Relying on state law also resulted in inconsistent treatment of property in different
states. Because each state had its own property laws, certain categories of property
would become part of the estate in one state but not in another.”).
25
It has been said that the study of property may “afford[] the student less
amusement and pleasure” than other areas of the law. 2 WILLIAM BLACKSTONE,
COMMENTARIES *382.
26
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 509. Both the examination of land
transactions (i.e., vesting documents) and fundamentals (i.e., rights in property)
strongly support this statement. With respect to vesting documents, there simply is
no consistency from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. See generally Pomeroy, SVD, supra
note 9. There are more than 3,000 counties, or county equivalents, where
documents can be recorded. See How Many Counties Are There in the United States?,
USGS MULTIMEDIA GALLERY, http://gallery.usgs.gov/audios/124 (last updated Jan.
09, 2013). Each of those has their own recording system and customs. See Dale A.
Whitman, Are We There Yet? The Case for a Uniform Electronic Recording Act, 24 W. NEW
ENG. L. REV. 245, 269 (2002). This is due to the historical development of the
American recording system and has resulted in a very clear, and very costly, example
of widespread variability in property law wherein different jurisdictions permit the
recording of different types of documents governed by different rules of
construction and creation. See John H. Scheid, Down Labyrinthine Ways: Recording Acts
Guide for First Year Law Students, 80 U. DET. MERCY L. REV. 91 (2002); see also 14
RICHARD R. POWELL, POWELL ON REAL PROPERTY § 82.01(1)(a) (Michael Allan Wolf
ed., 2009); Ray E. Sweat, Race, Race-Notice and Notice Statutes: The American Recording
23

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THE SHAPE OF PROPERTY
27

our economy and the enormous amount of money involved.
This heterogeneity is notable, in and of itself, and also because it
is so unlike other areas of the law. Contract law, for example,
28
exhibits far more uniformity than property law. This makes the
study and the practice of property law difficult; it is also problematic
in that it creates a lot of cost.
The broad-based heterogeneity described above compromises
the efficiency of property law by undercutting the core function of
property, which is to provide ready, relevant information to
29
interested parties. Property rights exist with reference to a thing
that is possessed or owned, and that “thing” communicates a bundle
of information about itself, and about its owner’s rights and
30
obligations, “to the world.” This communication, however, suffers
(or disintegrates) if nobody can understand what property rights exist
31
because there are no clear and consistent rules governing property.
And this is precisely what happens, time and again, with property
law. For example, with respect to vesting document heterogeneity,
the certainty and confidence promoted by the American Recording
32
System is significantly undermined because different jurisdictions
System, PROB. & PROP. 27–28 (May–June 1989). Similarly, with respect to rights in
property, heterogeneity prevails. See, e.g., Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 514–16.
WPH focused on one aspect of this larger issue: that of creditor rights in debtor
property. See id. at 523. Time and again, jurisdictions came to different conclusions
based on different rules. See id. at 516 (citing Harms v. Sprague, 473 N.E.2d 930,
932–34 (Ill. 1984); Peter M. Carrozzo, Tenancies in Antiquity: A Transformation of
Concurrent Ownership for Modern Relationships, 85 MARQ. L. REV. 423, 430 (2001)).
27
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 516 n.48 (pointing out that, in the context
of creditor rights, more than $1.2 trillion of residential mortgages were extended to
borrowers in 2011 alone).
28
In WPH, I created a taxonomy similar to that shown above, and examined how
the structure of contract law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. See Pomeroy,
WPH, supra note 9, at 518–21. In short, there is not much variation. See id.
(examining the concepts of modification and unjust enrichment, reviewing
numerous cases from varied jurisdictions, and concluding that the doctrines are
largely consistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction).
29
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 512.
30
Merrill & Smith, supra note 3, at 359.
31
See Carol M. Rose, Crystals and Mud in Property Law, 40 STAN. L. REV. 577, 577
(1988) (indicating that property law functions properly when its rules “signal to all of
us, in a clear and distinct language, precisely what our obligations are and how we
may take care of our interests”).
32
See, e.g., Douglas G. Baird & Thomas H. Jackson, Possession and Ownership: An
Examination of the Scope of Article 9, 35 STAN. L. REV. 175, 183 (1983) (indicating that
the manner in which the Recording System forces parties to record transfers of
property interests creates certainty by ensuring recording and the concomitant
propagation of information); see also Dan S. Schechter, Judicial Lien Creditors Versus
Prior Unrecorded Transferees of Real Property: Re-Thinking the Goals of the Recording System

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have different rules regarding which documents can, or must, be
33
recorded and how those documents must be drafted and executed.
This makes title issues difficult and expensive to resolve, and so
34
retards economic activity. Similarly, the heterogeneous nature of
third-party creditor rights in debtor property also undercuts
economic efficiency. Just as a potential buyer or seller’s inability to
35
determine title will prevent some transactions from occurring, a
potential lender’s inability to forecast his remedies will prevent some
36
loans from occurring. These are just a few examples of how the
overriding goal of property—to provide information—is continually
undermined by its heterogeneity.
Contrast this with contract law. Contract law is meant to ensure
that parties can negotiate, act, and reach agreement with certainty.
Jurisdictional uniformity supports this because parties have
confidence that their contracts will be enforced, regardless of what
jurisdiction controls—and this, in turn, stimulates positive market
37
activity. When it comes to property law, however, parties cannot
and Their Consequences, 62 S. CAL. L. REV. 105, 109–19 (1988) (examining and
refining, but ultimately supporting, this informational role of the recording system).
33
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 968.
34
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 969–71.
35
The cost of the lack of certainty described herein can be described either with
reference to the transactions that do not occur or to the increased cost of those that
do ultimately occur. What is relevant is the loss of economic activity, however
articulated.
36
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 516. A creditor’s need to understand its
potential rights in a potential debtor’s property is clear. Potential lenders must
continually assess the credit risk of every loan, and one of the ways they do so is to
evaluate their ability to pursue non-performing debtors and their assets. See id. at
514–16 (noting that this is so regardless of whether the loan is secured or
unsecured). This is a matter of common sense, and any failure by a lender in doing
this is likely to have significant, negative costs. See, e.g., RICHARD A. POSNER, A FAILURE
OF CAPITALISM: THE CRISIS OF ‘08 AND THE DESCENT INTO DEPRESSION 18–29 (2009).
Unfortunately, this task is difficult because the law varies so much from jurisdiction
to jurisdiction. See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 515. As such, lenders will fear the
sorts of mistakes that may result from their ignorance of the different laws that
prevail in different jurisdictions. Accordingly, some lenders will end up not making
loans that they would otherwise make, and some lenders will end up charging higher
rates or fees than they would otherwise charge. Again, what is relevant is the loss of
economic activity, however articulated.
37
See, e.g., RICHARD A. POSNER, ECONOMIC ANALYSIS OF LAW 117 (Aspen 8th ed.
2011) (“The basic aim of contract law . . . is, by deterring people from behaving
opportunistically toward their contracting parties, to encourage the optimal timing
of economic activity and (the same point) obviate costly self-protective measures.”);
Michael Trebilcock & Jing Leng, The Role of Formal Contract Law and Enforcement in
Economic Development, 92 VA. L. REV. 1517, 1525–26 (2006) (“The purpose served by
third-party enforcement [of contracts] is to provide stability and predictability as
incentives to parties to engage in non-simultaneous exchanges.”).

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have that sort of confidence, which thus dampens market activity and
38
economic growth. This is suboptimal—or, more simply put, it is
39
very expensive.
Why, then, is property so inefficient and so costly in comparison
to other areas of the law? There are a number of historical and
40
substantive reasons that contribute to this heterogeneity. More than
any other reason, though, the fixed nature of real property probably
plays a significant role in encouraging different jurisdictions to play
41
by different rules. Land does not move, so it is forever subject to a
single jurisdiction. This means that jurisdictions have had no
38

See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 520–21. “[I]nter-jurisdictional clarity of
property law would permit parties to engage in property transactions without fearing
unknown or unclear standards or rules.” Id. at 520–21 n.64. The current lack of
clarity, then, “undermines commercial activity to the extent that it prevents anyone
from engaging in a transaction they otherwise would have engaged in and to the
extent that it imposes additional transactional costs on commercial activities.” Id. at
521 n.64; see also Trebilcock & Leng, supra note 37, at 1525–26.
39
The costs associated with this inefficiency should not be underestimated. See
Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 525. As discussed therein, the title industry may
serve as a rough proxy for these costs. See id. Title insurance indemnifies against the
loss associated with nonconforming title. See John C. Murray, Title and Survey Issues in
Commercial Real Estate Transactions, in UNDERSTANDING THE SOPHISTICATED REAL ESTATE
TRANSACTION 55, 57–58 (Practicing Law Institute ed. 2003).
Title can be
nonconforming for a variety of reasons, but the confused status of property law likely
represents some part of the problem, so it seems reasonable to cite title insurance
expenses in gauging the magnitude of cost involved here. And that outlay is
significant, with the title industry generating $8.7 billion in fees in 2010 alone. See
Press Release, A.M. Best Co., A.M. Best Special Report: Despite Economic
Turbulence, Title Industry Outlook Remains Stable (Oct. 10, 2011), available at
http://www3.ambest.com/press/framepress.asp (accessed by selecting “October
2011” from “View by Month” menu, then selecting article). “In other words, the
wide-ranging nature of property law, so hated by students, is also ultimately hated by
market participants and practitioners.” Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 521.
40
See, e.g., Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 964–67. The role of property in our
economy has changed over the years, and the law has had to change to keep pace.
See id. at 963. This sort of transformation leads to variability. See also Dean Arthur R.
Gaudio, Electronic Real Estate Records: A Model for Action, 24 W. NEW ENG. L. REV. 271,
272–74 (2002); see Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 965 n.45 (“At the time of America’s
founding, land was shifting from its static role of wealth production to the dynamic
role of a commodity to be bought and sold.”). The basic nature of property is, itself,
problematic in this context. “By virtue of its durability, land invites an intricate
layering of rights over time.” Carol M. Rose, Canons of Property Talk, or, Blackstone’s
Anxiety, 108 YALE L.J. 601, 6l4 (1998). “Land, on the other hand, sticks around
indefinitely, while claims against land can go on and on, in layer after layer, to be
lost, found, banished, restored, relished, then lost again to longstanding practice and
prescription.” Id. A tort or a contract exists, is adjudicated, and then goes away.
There is no need to revisit the specific issues and facts over time. This is not the case
with property. Its infinite existence means that claims pile up, year after year, and
that the laws and rules created to address them do the same.
41
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 62.

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incentive to accommodate stakeholders or to evolve in an attempt to
42
There, is, however, a notable
“attract” real property commerce.
exception to this generally confused status.
B. The Numerus Clausus
As discussed in the introduction, when it comes to property
43
forms, the law is narrow and reliable across jurisdictions. No matter
where they are, people cannot create different, or “new,” types of
property because courts consistently refuse to recognize all but a
44
Understanding the numerus
limited number of property types.
clausus theory is important to understanding this Article; however,
while important, this theory is ultimately unpersuasive for the reasons
discussed below.

42

See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 517 (citing 8 WILLIAM D. HAWKLAND ET AL.,
UNIFORM COMMERCIAL CODE SERIES § 9-102:1 (2012) and contrasting the wildly
fluctuating law for real property with “the relatively uniform law relating to personal
property fostered by the Uniform Commercial Code,” which arguably resulted from
states’ fear of capital flight to more accommodating jurisdictions).
43
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 526–27 (discussing the accepted suite of
property forms, comprised of a discrete number of present property interests, future
property interests, and non-possessory property interests). But see Abraham Bell &
Gideon Parchomosvsky, Of Property and Federalism, 115 YALE L.J. 72, 75–76 (2005)
(arguing that “the numerus clausus description of property law as limited to [a] short
menu is only partly accurate, because menus differ from state to state”); Nestor M.
Davidson, Standardization and Pluralism in Property Law, 61 VAND. L. REV. 1597, 1600
(2008) (“[A]lthough standardization is a stable feature of property law, the particular
list of forms and their internal substance have always been dynamic . . . [yielding a]
wonderful variety in the content of the list and in the substance of the forms at any
given time and legal culture.”).
44
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 526–27; see also Keppell v. Bailey, (1834) 39
Eng. Rep. 1042 (Ch.) 1049 (“[I]ncidents of a novel kind [cannot] be devised and
attached to property at the fancy or caprice of any owner.”). “Historically, the courts
have enforced this rule either by striking down parties’ attempts to create new
interests or by recasting any attempted ‘fancy’ as something else that qualifies as a
more traditional property form.” Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 526 (citing Merrill
& Smith, supra note 2, at 11–12). Merrill and Smith believe that our legal system
honors this conception of property as a static catalog not subject to parties’ creativity.
“They treat previously-recognized forms of property as a closed list that can be
modified only by the legislature.” Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 11. This
inelasticity holds true for virtually all categories and subcategories of “property
form.” See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 526–27 (discussing the closed nature of
possessory estates, future interests, concurrent interests, personal property,
intellectual property, and creditor property rights). Indeed, almost all attempts to
exercise creativity in terms of property types arises in the context of trust law, in an
attempt to work around the courts and their unwillingness to honor parties’ attempts
at imagination. See id. at 527. Of course, while Merrill and Smith’s view on the
numerus clausus “phenomenon” is widely cited, it is not the only explanation for the
numerus clausus. See, e.g., infra note 63.

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1. The Numerus Clausus as an Exception to Heterogeneity
Merrill and Smith’s numerus clausus theory attempts to explain
why property law is uniquely uniform when it comes to the types of
45
estates that courts will recognize. Merrill and Smith claim that this
46
is a “stealth doctrine” and have largely developed it based on the
47
case of Johnson v. Whiton. Therein, Royal Whiton left some land to
48
his granddaughter “and her heirs on her father’s side.” The court
treated this as an attempt to create a new property form and
49
disallowed it, refashioning the devise as a fee simple absolute.
Merrill and Smith view this as a seminal case, as it fits their view of the
50
numerus clausus as a widely applied, but never articulated, doctrine.
The reason for this doctrine, Merrill and Smith claim, is that
new property types create costs in excess of their benefits and that
51
courts can, and should, refuse to recognize them. More specifically,
45

See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 69; see also Henry E. Smith, Community and
Custom in Property, 10 THEORETICAL INQUIRIES L. 5 (2009). See generally Michael A.
Heller, The Boundaries of Private Property, 108 YALE L.J. 1163, 1165–66 (1999)
(describing a “boundary principle,” which funnels property ownership into wellknown forms in order to keep “property categories from each other and help to keep
resources well-scaled for productive use”). Heller ultimately diverges from Merrill
and Smith in a number of specifics, see infra note 63, but his explanation of the
resistance to unending property types is helpful. He speaks in terms of “legal
things.” See id. at 1176. According to Heller, “[w]ith legal things, it is the fee simple
in Blackacre, not Blackacre itself, that is the core of private property. Halved, the
legal thing may yield a present and a future interest, or a freehold and a nonfreehold estate.” Id. This fragmentation and sub-classification is fine, to some
extent. However, “[a]s with physical fragmentation, at some point, preserving
fragments of legal things as private property diminishes the productivity of resources
even though each fragment may still have some positive economic value.” Id.
46
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 20–23.
47
34 N.E. 542 (Mass. 1893).
48
Id. at 542.
49
See id.
50
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 69. Another widely cited example involves
a testator attempting to leave a kind of “hybrid life estate,” involving a life estate with
the power to transfer the property in fee simple. See id. at 13. Courts have been
hostile to this, construing the property as either a life estate or a fee simple, but not a
hybrid of both. See, e.g., Smith v. Bell, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 68 (1832); Sumner v. Borders,
98 S.W.2d 918 (Ky. 1936); St. Louis Union Trust Co. v. Morton, 468 S.W.2d 193 (Mo.
1971).
51
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 3–5. According to Merrill and Smith, our
courts do this sub silentio, without articulating or even acknowledging the numerus
clausus doctrine. See id. at 9. Civil law countries are different in that they clearly
recognize and label the numerus clausus doctrine, which is where Merrill and Smith
get the name. See id. at 4 (citing Bernard Rudden, Economic Theory v. Property Law:
The Numerus Clausus Problem, in OXFORD ESSAYS IN JURISPRUDENCE: THIRD SERIES 239,
241 (John Eekelaar & John Bell eds., 1987); KARL-HERMANN CAPELLE, BÜRGERLICHES
RECHT: SACHENRECTH 13 (1963) (“Numerus Clausus, Typenzwang oder

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they claim that new types of property create informational costs and
52
This is so because of the in rem (as opposed to in
burdens.
53
personam) nature of property. Property rights are defined in the
context of the thing, which is owned, as opposed to being defined in
54
the context of the owners of the property. Accordingly, items of
property must effectively communicate an owner’s rights and
55
obligations to the world at large.
The problem with new types of property is that they make this
56
communication process difficult and costly. “[T]hird parties have to
expend time and resources to gain this knowledge, and unusual
57
According to
property forms increase the cost of doing this.”
Merrill and Smith, it is this marginal informational cost that drives
58
courts to apply the numerus clausus.
By limiting new forms of
Typenfixierung”); KLAUS SCHREIBER, SACHENRECTHT 28–29 (1993) (“Typenzwang und
Typenfixierung”)); see also J. Michael Milo, Property and Real Rights, in ELGAR
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMPARATIVE LAW 587, 593–600 (Jan M. Smits ed., 2006); Roderick
R.M. Paisley, Real Rights: Practical Problems and Dogmatic Rigidity, 9 EDINBURGH L. REV.
267, 267 (2004). But see infra note 63 (discussing this phenomenon in other, though
related, terms).
52
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 39.
53
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 3, at 359.
54
This conflicts with the view of property rights as a “bundle of rights.” Compare
ADAM SMITH, LECTURES ON JURISPRUDENCE 9–86 (R.L. Meek et al. eds. 1978), and
JEREMY BENTHAM, THE LIMITS OF JURISPRUDENCE DEFINED 164 (Charles Warren ed.,
1945), with Felix S. Cohen, Dialogue on Private Property, 9 RUTGERS L. REV. 357, 370
(1954) (characterizing property as an “exclusive right to control an economic
good”).
55
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 3, at 359. “In order to avoid violating another’s
property rights, [individuals] must ascertain what those rights are. In order to
acquire property rights, [individuals] must measure various attributes, ranging from
the physical boundaries of a parcel, to use rights, to the attendant liabilities of the
owner to others (such as adjacent owners).” Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 26.
56
See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 529.
57
Id. Heterogeneity of property forms would create higher cost because it would
require both the parties to a given transaction and third parties to process and
understand additional information. See Merrill & Smith, supra note 3, at 359; Merrill
& Smith, supra note 2, at 26–27 (citing Henry Hansmann & Reinier Kraakman, Unity
of Property Rights 5–6 (Nov. 17, 1999) (unpublished manuscript) (on file with the
Yale Law Journal)). Indeed, it is the costs borne by third parties that Merrill and
Smith focus on. They claim that property owners will not take account of these costs
because they do not bear them. See id. at 27. Accordingly, property “works” only
when it is simple and standardized enough that all third parties can understand the
rights that flow from property easily and with little or no cost. See id. at 28.
58
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 25–26 (relying upon Keppell v. Bailey,
(1834) 39 Eng. Rep. 1042 (Ch.) 1049). But see Henry Hansmann & Ugo Mattei, The
Functions of Trust Law: A Comparative Legal and Economic Analysis, 73 N.Y.U. L. REV.
434, 442 (1998) (casting some doubt on Merrill and Smith’s views of the numerus
clausus doctrine as a coherent response to systemic costs by claiming that that the
numerus clausus theory, as developed in civil law France, “was largely the product of

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property, then, courts guard against the informational burdens that
would proliferate if parties could create whatever property form they
59
Of course, this limitation of freedom causes
wanted to create.
frustration to society because people cannot create whatever property
form they would like and are instead forced to conform their affairs
and actions to the relatively limited suite of property forms that
60
courts acknowledge and permit.
These opposing forces drive property law toward what Merrill
and Smith call “optimal standardization,” wherein the frustration
costs and the information burden costs are balanced and so result in
61
This can be represented in
an “optimal” level of homogeneity.
graphic format:

the folklore and ideology of the French revolution and lacked a well articulated
general rationale”).
59
This judicial limitation permits everyone “to limit his or her inquiry to
whether the interest does or does not have the features of [pre-existing] forms.”
Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 33. “Perhaps the key point about the numerus
clausus is informational: The forced standardization of property forms creates a kind
of shorthand which, in turn, reduces information costs.” Jonathan C. Lipson, Secrets
and Liens: The End of Notice in Commercial Finance Law, 21 EMORY BANKR. DEV. J. 421,
497 (2005). This prevents everyone from “mistakenly mak[ing] inconsistent uses of
the asset or underus[ing] the asset.” Hansmann & Kraakman, supra note 8, at 382.
60
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 35. Another way to understand the
numerus clausus doctrine is to again compare contract and property law. See, e.g.,
Mulligan, supra note 8, at 237–38. One of the most noticeable differences between
the two is that contractual arrangements are highly customizable, while property
arrangements are not. See id. This is because the default rules that govern contract
law are generally alterable, whereas “a transfer of real or tangible property is
forbidden unless the transfer is permitted by law and within one of ‘a limited
number of standardized forms.’” Id. at 238 (citations omitted). When a court
reviews a highly negotiated contract, it endeavors endlessly to divine the parties’
intent. See Arthur L. Corbin, The Interpretation of Words and the Parol Evidence Rule, 50
CORNELL L. REV. 161, 162 (1965). But “[w]hen parties try to enforce property rights
that lie outside of the recognized forms, courts shoe-horn those rights into one of
the existing forms.” Mulligan, supra note 8, at 238. It is this built-in restriction on
imaginative customization, so easily discerned when contrasted with contract law,
which exemplifies the essence of the numerus clausus.
61
See Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 40.

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“Here, the x-axis is the number of property forms allowed, the yaxis is cost incurred by society, and the two cost curves measure the
social cost caused by unfettered freedom and the frustration costs
62
The numerus clausus, in theory,
caused by limits on agency.”
balances these curves and so creates the “optimal” number of
property forms that minimize the overall costs experienced by society
at large.
This theory is, then, an excellent explanation for a relatively
narrow area of the law (property form) that seems uniquely
63
restrictive. The only problem is that, upon further examination, the
numerus clausus is not a very persuasive explanation for property
form heterogeneity.

62

Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 533. This graph is derived from one created
by Merrill and Smith, and I have utilized it in both SVD and WPH.
63
I have generally referred to the “numerus clausus” doctrine and have, more or
less, entirely attributed it to Merrill and Smith. I think that is fair, given the
enormous amount of attention they have brought to this concept. It is also
reasonable, given that the thesis of this paper is that Merrill and Smith are, in
essence, wrong. It is worth mentioning, however, that theirs is not the only
justification for the widely accepted idea that there is a “closed number” of property
forms in the common law system. Some believe that this minimization ensures the
alienability of property. See Carol M. Rose, What Government Can Do for Property (and
Vice Versa), in THE FUNDAMENTAL INTERRELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN GOVERNMENT AND
PROPERTY 209, 214–15 (Nicholas Mercuro & Warren J. Samels eds., 1999); Heller,
supra note 45, at 1176–78. Others claim that it arises from a need to facilitate the
verification of ownership rights. See Hansmann & Kraakman, supra note 8. In truth,
these three explanations are highly interconnected; however, throughout this paper,
I shall primarily address the writings of Merrill and Smith.

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2. Shortcomings of the Current Numerus Clausus Theory
Like many commentators, I initially reacted very positively to the
64
numerus clausus doctrine. The doctrine seemed to me to be a very
cogent and helpful explanation of an interesting area of the law, and
I began to consider very carefully what other applications it might
have. To begin with, in SVD, I argued that the numerus clausus
should apply to vesting documents, which drive much of the logistics
65
of property transfer.
I did this by focusing on the cost of vesting document
heterogeneity and viewing these costs in the context of Merrill and
66
Smith’s informational burden analysis. In brief, although the costs
of heterogeneity are not possible to pinpoint precisely, they can be
conceptualized. The difficulty with allowing any sort of document to
be recorded is that doing so may ultimately confuse interested parties
who attempt to utilize the recording system to ascertain title and
67
ownership information. In other words, “a wide range of potentially
68
recordable documents negatively affects informational certainty.”
This cost, then, is the same type of informational burden Merrill and
69
Smith described when looking at property form.
64

See generally Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9,; Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9. And
there are many other examples of other positive reviews and commentaries on this
iteration of the numerus clausus. See, e.g., Sarah Harding, Perpetual Property, 61 FLA. L.
REV. 285, 317 (2009) (discussing the “recent wave of articles on the numerus clausus
principle”); Mulligan, supra note 8, at 235 (discussing numerus clausus and listing
other articles doing the same).
65
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 992–93. Vesting documents are those that
pass title from one party to another. See id. at 966 n.53 (citing MICH. COMP. LAWS §
554.13 (2012); OHIO REV. CODE § 5302.171 (West 2011); Sintz v. Stone, 562 So.2d 228
(Ala. 1990); Dixon v. Still, 121 A.2d 269 (D.C. 1956); Sun Valley Land & Minerals,
Inc. v. Burt, 853 P.2d 607 (Idaho 1993); BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 1083 (abridged 6th
ed. 1997)).
66
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 992–93.
67
See id. at 971. This is, of course, inimical to the recording system, which exists
primarily to communicate clear and concrete information. See id. at 970. Recording
statutes ensure this clarity by incentivizing title claimants to file vesting documents so
that later-interested parties can review all relevant vesting documents and thereby
understand chain of title. See id. (citing Dan S. Schechter, Judicial Lien Creditors Versus
Prior Unrecorded Transferees of Real Property: Re-Thinking the Goals of the Recording System
and Their Consequences, 62 S. CAL. L. REV. 105, 109 (1988); Douglas G. Baird & Thomas
H. Jackson, Possession and Ownership: An Examination of the Scope of Article 9, 35 STAN. L.
REV. 175, 183 (1983)).
68
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9 at 971.
69
See id. at 975. This parallel here is not exact in that the exogenous costs
identified by Merrill and Smith in the property form context probably do not apply
to the vesting context. See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 530. Exactitude is not
necessary, however.
So long as there is theoretical pressure to eliminate
heterogeneity, the same analysis should apply, even if a theoretically lower burden

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As such, I reasoned, the same countervailing forces should be
brought to bear in the vesting document context as have been
70
brought to bear in the property form context. That is, courts should
push back against new or unique types of vesting documents in the
same way they have traditionally pushed back against inventive or
71
“fancy” property forms. This would have the effect of seeking an
72
“optimal” number of types of vesting documents. Additionally, I
believed that the reasoning used to make that claim further validated
the effectiveness of the numerus clausus doctrine as a powerful tool
to understand property law generally.
Flush from that conclusion, I began to wonder just what area of
property law could not be viewed through the lens of the numerus
clausus. Ultimately, I concluded that the answer was none. In WPH,
then, I expanded the informational burden analysis of SVD, arguing
73
that it should apply to all of property law. In other words, all areas
of property law exhibit “a failure in the broadcast that systemically
flows from property, creating difficulty both for the immediate
parties concerned and for all parties, who must always be on the
lookout for new, or different, rights that upset standardized
74
calculations.”
The additional examples I used to make this point related to the
areas of co-ownership, and third party property rights and the
heterogeneity built into the American common and statutory law
75
governing them.
Heterogeneity in all of these distinct areas of
property law creates confusion and makes it difficult for people to
76
understand the rights that flow from property. And, returning to
results in a theoretically more diverse optimum.
70
See Pomeroy, SVD, supra note 9, at 992–93.
71
See id. at 995.
72
See id. at 992–93 (citing Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 40).
73
See generally Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9(arguing that the informational
burdens that are key to Merrill and Smith’s theory, and the push for optimal
simplification that arises therefrom, exist in all areas of property law).
74
Id. at 524 n.79.
75
See id. at 514–16. Co-ownership refers to the laws governing the concurrent
ownership of property by more than one party, and third party property rights refers
to the potential rights of non-owners to property, primarily arising in the creditordebtor context.
76
See id. With respect to third party rights, consider the varying state laws
regarding creditor rights in debtor property. Creditors can seize debtor assets
throughout the country, but the rules governing how they do so change from state to
state. See id. at 514–15 (citing numerous, differing state statutes regarding
exemptions and differing case law regarding creditor rights in concurrent and
marital property). This means that creditors and prospective creditors cannot
uniformly understand and assess the property rights and the potential risks and

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Merrill and Smith, heterogeneity in these other areas creates the
same kind of burden that the numerus clausus is supposed to be
77
This is especially
preventing in the context of property form.
notable, given that the numerus clausus could seemingly apply to all
areas of property law in the same way it has, according to Merrill and
78
Smith, been applied to property form.
This, I now think, is a problem. If the numerus clausus so nicely
justifies homogeneity due to the problems and costs that arise from
rewards inherent in the extension of credit, thereby affecting an enormous part of
the economy. See id. at 516 (pointing out that “more than $1.2 trillion of residential
mortgages were extended to borrowers in 2011 alone”). With respect to coownership, there is widespread variability among different jurisdictions in that the
states often treat the well-known, traditional suite of co-ownership interests
differently in numerous ways. See id. at 535 (citing Riddle v. Harmon, 162 Cal. Rptr.
530 (Cal. Ct. App. 1980) (recognizing differing law as to existence of unities of title
necessary to creation of joint tenancy)). Without a set of standard rules or laws, it is
not possible for any party to know precisely what characteristics attach to a given
property interest.
77
Take, for example, the area of third party property rights. In this context,
different states grant different rights in debtor property to creditors. See, e.g.,
Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 515. This means that creditors to a particular
transaction must take extra care to fully understand their potential creditor property
rights (i.e., their remedies). It also means, however, that all creditors everywhere must
take extra care every time they enter into, or evaluate entering into, a transaction.
This is because the mere potential for uncertainty infects non-parties. See Merrill &
Smith, supra note 2, at 27 (citing Hansmann & Kraakman, supra note 57, in
discussing how permitting new, or “fanciful,” types of property interests in a watch
would make all potential watch-buyers anxious about buying a non-uniform watch
and would cause them to incur extra costs to guard against such an outcome). This
same sort of analogy can be made in any area of property law: heterogeneity that
touches upon ownership rights will inevitably lead to increased cost, both with
respect to the parties at issue and with respect to all third parties.
78
If the numerus clausus were applied to vesting heterogeneity, the many
different kinds of vesting documents would be reduced and simplified, see Pomeroy,
SVD, supra note 9, at 993; if it were applied to third party rights, all jurisdictions
would be pushed toward a more standard set of exemptions and creditor rights, see
Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 535–37; and, if it were applied to co-ownership, the
conflicting laws associated with these property interests would narrow, see id. Simply
put, the variations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction would go away, leaving a
smoother, more wholly “Americanized” property law. See id. at 542. See also S. ANIL
KUMAR & N. SURESH, OPERATIONS MANAGEMENT 198 (2009) (tying together
standardization and simplification). This does not mean, of course, that all
heterogeneity would disappear. As indicated above, the numerus clausus does not
impose a rigid sameness. See supra note 62 and accompanying text. Rather, it pushes
the law toward an optimal point of homogeneity, wherein the informational costs of
variety are balanced with the need for inventiveness. See supra note 61 and
accompanying text. As described in WPH, “a widespread heterogeneity numerus
clausus would take effect—on a case-by-case basis, continually evaluating new or
different property rules to balance the extent to which such newness benefits the law
with the extent to which that same newness harms the legal system.” Pomeroy, WPH,
supra note 9, at 537.

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heterogeneity, why is it that only one area of property law is
homogenous? In WPH, I mostly passed over the issue, noting that it
79
Instead, I analyzed the legal
was a question for another day.
system’s failure to change or adapt in an ongoing fashion, focusing
on the extraordinary cost that changing settled property law would
80
cause. I continue to believe that this is valid—property law, though
fractured and often uncertain, is far too economically important to
81
change in a retroactive manner. However, upon further reflection, I
think the question of why the numerus clausus has not created
blanket uniformity throughout property law is a fatal flaw belying the
entire doctrine.
Consider an analogy. Suppose that there is a doctor in the early
th
20 century, and a man comes to him complaining of headaches,
nausea, and loss of appetite. After a battery of tests and questions,
82
the doctor diagnoses the man as having typhoid fever.
Being a
curious doctor, he delves deeper, attempting to discover the cause of
this long-known but little-understood disease. He asks questions
about the patient’s family, job, diet, and living situation. Eventually,
after digging deeper, he focuses on the man’s diet. Recently, the
man cut most meat out of his diet, now eating primarily fruits and
vegetables—food that he does not find appetizing. The doctor
79

See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 537–38 (“It is not entirely clear from the
research set forth and examined here precisely why it is that the informational
burdens associated with property form heterogeneity had a stabilizing influence,
while those associated with other areas of property law have not had a similar
influence,” but “this question is largely beyond the scope of this article.”).
80
See id. at 532. In other words, rather than asking why the numerus clausus has
not homogenized all of property law, I focused on why courts have not reacted to the
doctrine, in reviewing new property law issues and in re-evaluating old precedent.
See id. This is a prospective question, ignoring the potential ex ante application of
the numerus clausus that Merrill and Smith claim has occurred with respect to
property form.
81
The example I gave in WPH concerned attempting to impose uniformity in a
state (Nevada) that has historically permitted what is known as a grant, bargain, and
sale deed (a “GBS deed”). See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 540. This type of
vesting document is unknown in many jurisdictions and so would conceivably have
never been permitted had the first Nevada court with an opportunity disallowed it.
See id. That does not mean, however, that present courts should do so, as such an
action would limit creativity (the kinds of costs traditionally associated with the
numerus clausus) and create a host of present and future “roll-back” costs (like
correcting future users and purging old documents). See id. at 541. All attempts to
create uniformity would have similar costs. Indeed, in the context of many areas of
property law, these costs are likely structural and pronounced, given that our
recording system cements into place past practices. See id.
82
See Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, UNICEF, http://www.unicef.org/wash
/index_wes_related.html (last visited Jan. 31, 2014) (noting that symptoms of
Typhoid fever “are characterized by headaches, nausea and loss of appetite”).

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examines other patients with typhoid, and they all suffer from loss of
appetite, as well. As such, the doctor reaches a conclusion: typhoid
fever is caused by eating unappetizing vegetables!
83
Obviously, this conclusion is untrue. But let us reflect on the
logic of the analytical process of our doctor and his conclusion. It is
true that typhoid typically causes loss of appetite and that, therefore,
84
it is easy to associate loss of appetite with typhoid. However, there
85
are many, many diseases that cause loss of appetite, and our
hypothetical patient does not have any of those diseases, according to
the doctor. Our doctor, then, is painting with far too broad a brush.
The consumption of unappetizing vegetables can be used to explain
a whole host of diseases and seems equally convincing with respect to
each of them, but it does not actually cause any of them.
I think this is what Merrill and Smith have done. They have
selected a facially logical explanation for the homogeneity of the law
governing property form and have therefore put that forth as the
explanation. What they have not considered (like our doctor did not
consider) is that heterogeneity drives up costs in all areas of property
law because the informational burdens (which drive Merrill and
Smith’s numerus clausus construct) are present throughout property
law, not just in the context of property form. That this is so, despite
the fact that the homogeneity that Merrill and Smith claim flows from
those burdens is wholly absent in virtually every other area of
property law, significantly weakens Merrill and Smith’s central
86
thesis. It is not logically possible to tie together cause and effect if
83

See, e.g., The Real Cause of Typhoid Fever Accidentally Discovered, INSIDE SCIENCE
(July 19, 2013), http://www.insidescience.org/content/real-cause-typhoid-feveraccidentally-discovered/1212. Typhoid Fever is caused by the bacterium Salmonella
typhi, a pathogen that is often found in dirty water or contaminated food.
84
See,
e.g.,
Typhoid
Fever,
WEBMD,
http://www.webmd.com/a-to-zguides/typhoid-fever (last visited Jan. 31, 2014); Common Water and Sanitation Related
Diseases, UNICEF, http://www.unicef.org/wash/index_wes_related.html (last visited
Jan. 31, 2014).
85
See, e.g., Loss of Appetite, MEDICINENET.COM, http://www.medicinenet.com
/loss_of_appetite/symptoms.htm (last visited Jan. 31, 2014) (indicating that loss of
appetite can be a symptom of Addison’s disease, Amyloidosis, Cancer, Cat Scratch
Disease—apparently a real malady, not just a terrible song—dementia, depression,
kidney failure, postpartum depression, Rheumatoid Arthritis, stroke, and yellow
fever, to name a few).
86
Consider just a single example. “The numerus clausus principle is essentially
nonexistent in intellectual property law.” Mulligan, supra note 8, at 237–38. See also
Heller, supra note 46, at 1174–75 (discussing the failure of patent law to “prevent[]
excessive fragmentation”). This is so despite the presence of precisely the type of
informational burdens identified by Merrill and Smith. See Mulligan, supra note 8, at
266 (describing, in terms of the difficulties of third parties in understanding and
ordering rights, the confusion and costs caused by the differing types of licensing

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the alleged cause exists in other contexts without an effect.
This sort of error is, it seems, related to the “sharpshooter
fallacy.” This is a logical error in which one does not establish the
conditions of a “test” until after the results are “proven.” The classic
example of this fallacy is of someone shooting a wall and then
painting a target around the bullet hole, thereby “proving” a bullseye
87
and establishing his shooting accuracy. Merrill and Smith did not
do this in the classic sense. That would involve establishing and
describing the numerus clausus and then determining that it could
be used to explain property form homogeneity. Instead, I think they
88
identified the “problem” of property form homogeneity, came up
with the “solution” of the numerus clausus, and then fit the two
together, concluding that the one explains (or causes) the other.
Rather than shooting against a wall and painting a bullseye, I think
this is more akin to shooting against a wall and hitting many different
bullseyes—but only focusing on one of them and then using that one
shot to establish accuracy.
Instead of the sharpshooter fallacy, then, perhaps this sort of
logical disconnect should be called the “shotgun fallacy.” A shotgun
generally uses a fixed shell to fire many smaller, spherical pellets
called shot. The shot sprays out, with the individual pellets hitting in
different places and creating a much wider blast radius. So, then, the
pellets hit many “targets.” However, that does not mean the shooter
can point to a particular bullseye and claim that his good shooting
caused the bullseye.
Similarly, the numerus clausus ultimately sprays out over a wide
89
swath of property law, as discussed above. It does “hit” property
form, in the sense that heterogeneity would cause additional costs in
this area of the law. However, the numerus clausus also “hits” other
90
areas of the law in precisely the same sense. As such—in the same
way that our marksman cannot claim that his good shooting caused
the bullseye or that our hypothetical doctor, above, cannot claim that

rights extant in the American system of intellectual property law).
87
See, e.g., Exxon Corp. v. Makofski, 116 S.W.3d 176, 186 (Tex. Ct. App. 2003)
(giving a basic explanation of this fallacy, apparently sometimes called the “Texas
Sharpshooter Fallacy”).
88
As can be inferred from the discussion above, the “problem” of homogeneity,
as originally faced by Merrill and Smith, was that it was unique and so required
explanation. See supra Part II.B.
89
That is, the burdens and costs that drive informational burden analysis at the
heart of the numerus clausus doctrine all seem to be present in other areas of
property law as well. See supra Part II.B.
90
See id.

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eating unappetizing vegetables causes typhoid fever—I do not think
that one can claim that the numerus clausus causes, or is uniquely
connected to, the homogeneity of property form. The context here
is slightly different, but the principle is apt: the numerus clausus,
which seems equally applicable to all areas of property law, cannot
serve as an explanation for something that manifests itself in just one,
specific area of property law. In the end, the differing levels of
homogeneity present in property form and the other areas of
property law, despite the similar informational burdens inherent in
all of property law, undercuts the use of the numerus clausus as a
reasonable, logical explanation of the sort urged by Merrill and
Smith.
To be fair, Merrill and Smith could still be correct if it were
demonstrated that property form heterogeneity fosters informational
burdens, if not uniquely, then in a different manner, or to a higher
91
degree, than it does in other areas of property law. However, there
is no real reason to think that this is so. As discussed above, Merrill
and Smith do a very nice job of describing the numerus clausus and
92
of explaining the costs that arise from heterogeneity in that context.
But that description and that explanation seem to be just as
93
applicable in virtually every other area of property law. Indeed, the
argument above regarding the theoretically widespread presence of
heterogeneity-induced informational burdens in all of property law
appears to be uniform in all particulars. In other words, conceptually,
there is some reason to think that heterogeneity necessarily creates
cost in every area of property law.
To understand this, return again to the basic purpose of
94
property: encompassing and conveying rights. It is, to once more
use Merrill and Smith’s term, a way to “broadcast” information about
95
legally cognizable rights and obligations. This purpose holds true
96
for all aspects of property. All of the different facets of property law
combine to define what we “own” and what that means. Accordingly,
confusion over any one of these areas creates confusion throughout
91

See Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 524 n.79.
See id.
93
See id.
94
Property law defines ownership rights in property. See Rose, supra note 31, at
577 (indicating that much of property is constituted of rules that “signal to all of us,
in a clear and distinct language, precisely what our obligations are and how we may
take care of our interests”).
95
See supra note 73 and accompanying text.
96
See, e.g., Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 510 (setting forth a taxonomy that
dissects property into its component pieces).
92

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all systems that interpret and rely upon property principals—that is,
confusion (created by heterogeneity) increases the costs for all
participants and potential participants. This is precisely what
troubled Merrill and Smith in contemplating property form
97
heterogeneity; but, again, it exists everywhere in property, and in
equal measure.
In the end, then, it appears that the numerus clausus, fashioned
by Merrill and Smith as a remedy to informational overload that is
uniquely applicable to property form, is a misdiagnosis and does not
98
In essence, “an argument that
withstand theoretical scrutiny.
99
explains everything, explains nothing.” Of course, that raises the
obvious question of what does really explain the unique homogeneity
of property form. I address this question in Part III, below, and come
97

See supra note 57 and accompanying text.
Also casting Merrill and Smith’s hypothesis into doubt is the fact that a
number of the cases cited by them in support of their diagnosis of a sub silentio
numerus clausus seem not to bear closer scrutiny. See, e.g., Sumner v. Borders, 98
S.W.2d 918 (Ky. Ct. App. 1936) (cited in Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 14 n.44);
Thompson v. Baxter, 119 N.W. 797 (Minn. 1909) (cited in Merrill & Smith, supra
note 2, at 22 n.87); Garner v. Gerrish, 473 N.E.2d 223 (N.Y. 1984) (cited in Merrill &
Smith, supra note 2, at 22 n.88); Smith’s Transfer & Storage Co. v. Hawkins, 50 A.2d
267 (D.C. 1946) (cited in Merrill & Smith, supra note 2, at 11–12 n.28). Three of
these cases are lease cases, and they all ultimately permit the creation of a lease that
is neither a traditional term of years nor a traditional tenancy at will. See Thompson,
119 N.W. at 799 (permitting the creation of a life estate terminable upon the lessee’s
moving away from the locale of the leased property); Smith’s Transfer, 50 A.2d at 268
(construing a lease as creating a term for one year, unless World War II had not
terminated at that time, in which case the lease shall continue until that war
terminated “by proclamation of the President of the United States, or by joint
resolution of Congress of the United States”); Garner, 473 N.E.2d at 225 (interpreting
a lease term dependent on one party’s discretion as a “determinable life tenancy”).
Indeed, Thompson cites a number of additional cases permitting determinable
leasehold life estates. See Thompson, 119 N.W. at 799 (citing, among others, Hurd v.
Cushing, 24 Mass. 169 (1828), which permitted a lease for “so long as the salt works
located thereon should continue in operation” and Warner v. Tanner, 38 Ohio St. 118
(1882), which permitted a lease for yearly rent so long as the lessee should continue
to occupy the premises for a particular purpose). And the first case mentioned
above, Sumner v. Borders, actually turns upon a local statute. See Sumner, 98 S.W.2d at
919. It is true, then, that the Kentucky Court of Appeals turned a seemingly “fancy”
interest into a fee simple. See id. However, it did so not due to any concern out of
informational burdens, but rather at the direction of the state legislature. See id.
That this distinction is quite relevant will become apparent later on in this Article.
See infra Part III.
99
See Ronald J. Allen & Brian Leiter, Naturalized Epistemology and the Law of
Evidence, 87 VA. L. REV. 1491, 1527 (2001). Though not credited in the foregoing
article, this quote is often attributed to Karl Popper, an Austro-British philosopher
and professor at the London School of Economics, as a description of the
sharpshooter fallacy. I believe the logic inherent in the statement is my self-styled
“shotgun fallacy.”
98

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to a much earthier, though admittedly less elegant, conclusion than
Merrill and Smith.
III. THE HISTORY OF PROPERTY
100

“He who controls the past controls the future.”
Rather than seeking the key to our eclectic property laws from a
101
clever articulation of economic ideals, we should look instead to
historic England and to the motivations and circumstances that
influenced the English monarchy and nobility as they engaged in a
series of skirmishes that ultimately shaped modern property law. In
particular, we need to examine a couple of critical statutes passed in
the thirteenth century, which ultimately had an outsized effect on our
concept of estates and property form. In reviewing this important
part of our common law history, we should be mindful of the
underlying motivations of the parties in power who created these
laws. We should keep these motivations in mind, first, because it aids
in our understanding of just how it is that these ancient decisions
fundamentally changed property law, and, second, because those
underlying motivations are with us to this day and reverberate
through our modern laws and circumstances.
To begin, let us stipulate that most affairs of collective human
102
activity are founded upon contests for money and power and
examine how property has been shaped in that context. Not
surprisingly, given this discussion, an analysis of the history of our
laws reveals the omnipresent desire of those who craft these laws for
money and power. The interplay of these desires and competing
concerns, over the centuries, manifested itself in a series of
competing, evolving statutes and laws in early English common law.
It is the nature of these statutes, and the interests underlying them,
103
which really explains what has happened to property. Indeed, the
100

GEORGE ORWELL, 1984 178 (Good Book Classics, 2013) (memorably quoted by
Rage Against the Machine in Testify, 1999).
101
Again, I wish to give credit to Merrill and Smith’s theory. I think it is an
elegant one, and I think it has very much stoked an interest in a really interesting
area of property law. Ultimately, however, I do not think it is applicable in the way
Merrill and Smith contend.
102
There is, of course, no real footnote that can support this subjective claim. I
think it well within the realm of reasonability, however, given an even cursory review
of human history. Laws, wars, migrations, discovery—virtually any important
historical element of human activity can be credibly ascribed to humanity’s thirst for
money and power.
103
Given the focus of this paper, this historical analysis is intended to explain the
unique homogeneity of property form against the backdrop of property’s generally
heterogeneous nature. Additionally, it is worth noting that this analysis is not

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very nature of our system of estates—from which ultimately springs
the unique homogeneity of property form—arises from the contest
for wealth and influence.
To understand the relevant history, one must begin with the
concepts of feudal incidents. Conceptually, all land belonged to the
king and was granted from him to his lords in exchange for “feudal
104
incidents.” These lords could, in turn, transfer the land to others in
exchange for their own feudal incidents. These incidents varied a
105
great deal.
However, at their base, they benefited the king (or
overlord) at the expense of the inferior landowner and can thus be
106
One of the earliest contests over land,
viewed, broadly, as a tax.
power, and wealth, then, involved the struggle between the king and
the nobility over these incidents. And one of the earliest rules serving
intended to be an exhaustive history of English statutes, even as they might relate to
the topic at hand. There are almost certainly additional statutes, aside from the ones
discussed momentarily, that would relevant here. Nevertheless, I believe that these
statutes serve as an adequate basis to broach, and establish, my hypothesis that
property homogeneity is more appropriately attributed to a historical review of
English common law than to Merrill and Smith’s informational burden analysis.
104
“After the Battle of Hastings, William declared himself the owner of all land in
England. Rather than award outright ownership of land to his supporters,
William . . . kept some strings attached to the land.” Roy T. Black, The Historical
Background of some Modern Real Estate Principles, 34 REAL EST. L. J. 327, 334 (2005).
“[T]he landholders essentially became tenants holding in service of the king.” Id.
“The landholding lords owed different forms of rent, known as feudal incidents . . . .”
Id. The feudal incidents can also be viewed as taxes. See infra note 106. This practice
instituted by William caused land to be held by a relatively small class of wealthy
individuals. See H.R. LYON, ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND AND THE NORMAN CONQUEST 327–
28 (2d ed. 1991) (“By 1086 when the Domesday census was taken there were only two
English tenants-in-chief of baronial rank out of approximately 180 in the whole of
England.”).
105
See James M. McElfish, Jr., Property Rights and Wetlands Regulation, SA83 ALIABA 439, n.54 (1996) (“The free tenures were: tenure by knight service (requiring
military service and the feudal incidents and aids); serjeanty (requiring personal
service to the lord); frankalmoin (involving lands granted to religious establishments
who were then obliged to say masses or prayers); and free and common socage (fixed
rental of lands).”); B.H. McPherson, Revisiting the Manor of East Greenwich, 42 AM. J.
LEGAL HIST. 35, 39 (1998) (“The number and character of incidents varied with the
nature of the tenure.”). Eventually, the practical application of this variation
disappeared, as most of these incidents were commuted to simple monetary
payments. See Mark A. Senn, Shakespeare and the Land Law in his Life and Works, 48
REAL PROP. TR. & EST. L.J. 111 (2013).
106
See David J. Seipp, Trust and Fiduciary Duty in the Early Common Law, 91 B.U. L.
REV. 1011, 1015 (2011) (“These feudal incidents . . . of wardship and marriage can
be viewed as a tax.”); Stewart E. Sterk, Asset Protection Trusts: Trust Law’s Race to the
Bottom, 85 CORNELL L. REV. 1035, 1041 (2000) (“The Statute of Uses, enacted in 1535,
eliminated the use as a tax avoidance device and restored the king’s power to collect
feudal incidents.”); Lior Jacob Strahilevitz, The Right to Abandon, 158 U. PA. L. REV.
355, 399 (2010) (“Real property taxes are the modern-day equivalent of feudal
incidents.”).

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107

the king’s interest in this struggle was the rule of primogeniture.
Under this system of inheritance, ownership of property passed from
father to eldest son, leaving other children and third parties with very
108
This served the interests of the king because it
little or nothing.
109
limited the total number of landowners in the feudal system. The
king, and his underling overlords, desired this because division and
fragmentation of land could affect, and sometimes reduce, the
incidents and relief flowing to the overlords and, ultimately, the
110
king. Of course, in this, the king’s interest was directly opposed to
those of the landowners, who would have liked to elude incidents and
who also thereby lost any ability to transfer and control their land, the
111
principal form of wealth.
Inevitably, various landowners, seeking control of “their”
112
property, violated the rule of primogeniture. This, in turn, led the
king and the overlords (and, more generically, any ancestors desiring
113
to exercise control from beyond the grave) to create the fee tail.
This estate, generally created by words to the effect of “To X and the
heirs of his body,” was meant to grant the land to A for life and to his
114
eldest son upon survival, and to repeat that process ad infinitum.
Eventually, the courts became involved, exercising a strongly anti115
alienation prerogative and permitting the grantees of fee tails to
107

See Meggie Orgain, Death Comes to Us All, but Through Inheritance, the Rich can get
Richer: Inheritance and the Federal Estate Tax, 4 EST. PLAN. & CMTY. PROP. L.J. 173, 175
(2011).
108
See id. at 175 (2011); see also Christine G. Clark, Women’s Rights in Early England,
1995 B.Y.U. L. REV. 207, 226–30 (discussing the effect of this practice on women).
109
See Pamela Champine, Expertise and Instinct in the Assessment of Testamentary
Capacity, 51 VILL. L. REV. 25, 64 (2006); see also II POLLOCK & MAITLAND, THE HISTORY
OF ENGLISH LAW BEFORE THE TIME OF EDWARD I 362 (2d ed. 1905) (“Primogeniture
reflects not family interest but rather the interests of a stranger to the inheritance—
some king or lord whose interests demand that the land shall not be partitioned . . . .
The great fief, which is both property and office must, if it be inherited at all,
descend as an integral whole.”).
110
See William A. Reppy, Jr., Judicial Overkill in Applying the Rule in Shelley’s Case, 73
NOTRE DAME L. REV. 83, 129–35 (1997); see also Stephen W. DeVine, Ecclesiastical
Antecedents to Secular Jurisdiction Over the Feoffment to the Uses to Be Declared in
Testamentary Instruments, 30 AM. J. LEGAL HIST. 295, 295 (1986).
111
See Champine, supra note 109, at 64.
112
See Marianne M. Jennings, Real Property Could Use Some Updating, 24 REAL EST.
L.J. 103, 106 (1995).
113
See Thomas C. Martin, Haunted by History: Colonial Land Trusts Pose National
Threat, 48 WM. & MARY L. REV. 303, 312 n.59 (2006) (“The term ‘fee tail’ comes from
the early modern English doctrine of entail, which arose out of the principle of
primogeniture.”).
114
See Kent D. Schenkel, Exposing the Hocus Pocus of Trust, 45 AKRON L. REV. 63,
101 (2012).
115
English courts have long favored the free alienation of property interests. See

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avoid this sort of limitation. The back and forth involving the king
and other landholders (the tax recipients), the inferior landholders
(the taxpayers), and the courts continued when, in 1285, the
117
legislature passed a statute called the De Donis Conditionalibus. This
statute seemed to cement into place a victory for the tax recipients by
118
eliminating the fee simple conditional and legitimizing the fee tail.
However, in a response that is not surprising in hindsight, the courts
again responded by creating the concept of “disentailing,” which
essentially permitted the tenant in tail to convert their interest into a
119
fee simple absolute.
So the contestants went back and forth, everyone trying, like
Agamemnon in our story above, to establish their base of power and
revenue. More to the point, however, this back and forth began to
shape our concept of property. Indeed, the very concept of an
“estate” as a legal metric of ownership can largely be traced to this
120
struggle and, more specifically, to the De Donis Conditionalibus.
As a result of De Donis . . . the medieval lawyers recognized
that an entailed fee was somewhat less than a fee simple and
that the quantum of an estate had to be measured by its
possible duration in time. Reversioners and remaindermen
became holders of existing interests as opposed to holders
of rights to obtain an interest when the scope of the real
actions expanded. This recognition led to the conclusion
Jessica L. Lacey, The Dead Hand Loses Its Grip in Virginia: A New Rule for Trust
Amendment and Termination?, 29 U. RICH. L. REV. 1235, 1240 (1995).
116
The courts relied on what is known the fee simple conditional to accomplish
this. This estate becomes a fee upon the occurrence of some condition—in this case,
the birth of issue. See John G. Shively, The Death of the Life in Being: The Required
Federal Response to State Abolition of the Rule Against Perpetuities, 78 WASH. U. L.Q. 371,
374 (2000); see also Jennings, supra note 112, 106 (“[W]hen the judges read ‘To A
and the heirs of his body,’ they said, ‘Looks like a fee simple conditional to me.
Once A has heirs, he can do anything he wants with the land, including giving it to a
[third party].’” (footnotes omitted)).
117
See Jennings, supra note 112, at 106.
118
See id. at 106–08. Thereafter, the language, “To A and the heirs of his body,”
clearly referred to the grantor’s lineal descendants. See id. at 107. As such, instead of
the estate ultimately vesting in the grantee (as under the fee simple conditional
construction), the grantor indefinitely retained a reversion for so long as the
possibility existed that the line of natural descendants might expire. See David A.
Thomas, Anglo-American Land Law: Diverging Developments from a Shared History; Part I:
Shared History, 34 REAL PROP. PROB. & TR. J. 143, 176 (1999).
119
See W. Barton Leach, Perpetuities in a Nutshell, 51 HARV. L. REV. 638, 663 (1938)
(“[T]he power to disentail makes the tenant in tail the substantial owner and causes
interests after the estate tail to be in substance gifts by the last tenant in tail at the
time of expiration of his estate.”).
120
See Mark A. Senn, English Life and Law in the Time of the Black Death, 38 REAL
PROP. PROB. & TRUST J. 507, 519 (2003).

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that a fee simple could be comprised of several interests or
estates. In this sense, the root of estate (L. status, or
standing or position), shows that an estate existed in
121
relation to other possible interests.
Of course, the back and forth detailed above did not stand
alone. Also implicated in this early fashioning of estates was the
Statute Quia Emptores. This statute, not surprisingly, resulted from the
partial victory of the king and his taxing cohortrepresented by the De
Donis Conditionalibus.
When tenants lost some of their ownership rights, under the De
Donis Conditionalibis, they turned to other means to exploit their
122
property. To understand what occurred, recall that, at its base, all
property in Norman England belonged to the king and was “rented”
out to his followers in exchange for different forms of “rent” or
123
Those followers also
“taxes” in the form of feudal incidents.
desired to turn the land into rent. As such, after receiving the use of
the land from the king, they granted an estate in the land to a
124
This
subordinate in exchange for their own feudal incidents.
process created “a pyramidal land holding structure with the king at
the top of the pyramid and layers of landholders below him down to
lowly serfs, who were in essence sharecroppers, paying their land rent
125
So this process, called
with agricultural products.”
126
subinfeudation, permitted the landowners who had lost out under
De Donis Conditionalibis to raise funds without violating primogeniture
or fee tail restrictions by recruiting subordinate holders to pay feudal
127
incidents.
The process of subinfeudation, however, was not a
121

Id. (footnotes omitted); see also C.M.A. McCauliff, The Medieval Origin of the
Doctrine of Estates in Land: Substantive Property Law, Family Considerations and the Interests
of Women, 66 TUL. L. REV. 919, 981–82 (1992) (“De Donis has largely been credited
with establishing the doctrine of estates . . . [because] the avowed intention of this
Act was simply to establish uniform rules for the regulation of conditional fees, but
its effect was to create a form of estate of inheritance unknown to common law.”).
122
“Exploit,” here, is used in a strict sense and is not pejorative. It merely means
“to make productive use of.”
See Exploit, MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY,
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shape (last visited Feb. 2, 2014).
123
See supra note 104 and accompanying text.
124
See Black, supra note 104, at 337 (“The barons in turn granted the use of lands
to knights who owed incidents to the barons.”). This granting of an estate is also
known as “enfeoffment.” See Senn, supra note 120, at 557.
125
See Black, supra note 104.
126
“Subinfeudation” is sometimes referred to as “subinfeudination,” though the
two terms appear to possess the same meaning.
127
See Julia Belian, Medicaid, Elective Shares, and the Ghosts of Tenures Past, 38
CREIGHTON L. REV. 1111, 1146 (2005).

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straightforward one. Let us take for example a situation wherein the
king grants an estate in land to A. As we have discussed, A owes
feudal incidents to the king, and A can subinfeudate by granting an
estate in the land to B in exchange for B’s promise to pay future
feudal incidents. The problem with subinfeudation, from the king’s
perspective, was that B (the newly enfeoffed tenant) was not required
128
129
Instead B paid his
to pay feudal incidents directly to the king.
130
Of
incidents directly to A, who now became an overlord himself.
131
course, A was still required to pay his incidents to the king. A often
had difficulty doing so, however, because overlords in A’s position
regularly reduced the kinds of incidents requested from grantees like
132
B in order to increase the initial purchase price.
As such, in keeping with our recurring theme of parties seeking
economic advantage through legislative action, the king (and
overlords who similarly suffered due to subinfeudation) sought to
block such transfers by statute. This effort culminated in the Statute
133
Under this statute, subinfeudation
Quia Emptores, passed in 1290.
(and its accompanying devaluation of feudal incidents) was
134
prohibited, but lords were required to accept substitution upon the
135
This prohibition of subinfeudation significantly
payment of a fee.
simplified the newly conceived system of estates by eliminating the
136
very existence of a whole category of property claims.
128

See Senn, supra note 120, at 556–57 (discussing the differences between
substitution and subinfeudation).
129
And, due to primogeniture and other Norman traditions, it was always a “he.”
See generally Clark, supra note 108, at 226–30.
130
See Senn, supra note 120, at 557.
131
See id. at 557. In this, subinfeudation is different from substitution. “By
substitution, the tenant stepped out of the feudal hierarchy and the grantee replaced
him. The grantee then owed the lord whatever services and incidents his grantor
had owed.” Id. at 556.
132
See id. at 557. So, for example, A may be required to provide the king with ten
knights per year, while B may only be required to pay A “a peppercorn” each year.
See, e.g., id. This economically negative effect of subfeudation was compounded,
from the king’s perspective, because the insertion of B into the chain of ownership
prevented the property from escheating to the king upon A’s death, and all the king
ended up with then was a tenant (B) who pays a peppercorn each year. See id. at 557
n.398 (“The seignory (i.e., the tenant’s right to the peppercorn) reverts; the land
does not.”).
133
See David A. Super, A New New Property, 113 COLUM. L. REV. 1773, 1856 (2013);
Belian, supra note 127, at 1146.
134
See supra text accompanying note 131 (discussing substitution).
135
See Belian, supra note 127, at 1146.
136
See Michael A. de Gennaro, The “Public Trust” Servitude: Creating a Policy-Based
Paradigm for Copyright Dispute Resolution and Enforcement, 37 TEX. TECH L. REV. 1131,
1139 (2005) (indicating that subinfeudation created “many layers of competing

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What we see occurring here is that the historical contest between
taxpayers and tax recipients created the foundations of our property
system; established the very nature of the property forms over which I
have spilled so much ink; and immediately began to cabin the
number of acceptable property forms.
This limitation occurred naturally and implicitly as a result of
137
the categorical nature of the De Donis Conditionalibis and more
explicitly as a result of the Statute Quia Emptores’s bright line
elimination of various kinds of interests. This history, then, created
our fixed concept of ownership as a system of estates; and once that
138
structure was initially populated, innovation largely ceased.
That is not to say that all attempts at customization ceased. The
contest over money and power is never-ending, and the struggle
between those seeking taxes and those seeking to avoid them will
never end. Take, for instance, the Statute of Uses. Though the
system of estates and the generally recognized suite of property forms
were largely finalized after 1300, landowners discovered a way to
avoid the payment of feudal incidents “by conveying land to one
139
This conveyance, ancestor to the
party ‘for the use’ of another.”
interests”).
137
Once a concept like an “estate” is created, it must be classified. Here, estates
were quickly broken into either “estates in possession or estates in expectancy.” See
Senn, supra note 120, at 519–20 (“Estates in possession included the fee simple,
which was the largest estate and descended to lineal and collateral heirs, the fee tail,
which descended only to lineal heirs, and the life estate. The estates in expectancy
were the interests left over when the grantor gave less than all he owned: a reversion
if the interest returned to him, and a remainder if it went to someone else.”).
Categorization is, in and of itself, a limiting force and once bright lines are drawn
around something, any innovation or exercise of creativity becomes a departure
from the accepted. This has an effect on people and on customs—instead of
continually improvising, trying to improve, and adapting to new circumstances,
people instead view the world through the lens of custom and, at least, hesitate to
step outside the norm. That is what occurred here, in the context of estates and
property form.
138
McCauliff, supra note 121, at 983:
[I]nterests in land were virtually fixed by De Donis. [A]fter De Donis, new
types of interests in land were for the most part not created. . . . The
interests in land were the fee simple, the fee tail, and the life estate,
with the possibility of a remainder or reversion in estates in tail or for
life.
Id; see also Percy Bordwell, The Common Law Scheme of Estates, 18 IOWA L. REV. 425, 427
(1933) (“[T]he old categories remained except as affected by the Statutes De Donis
and Quia Emptores, and probably will remain substantially unchanged as long as the
common law system of estates continues.”); Belian, supra note 127, at 1146 (“By 1300
or so, this push and pull had flattened the feudal pyramid and frozen the estates as
they stood.”).
139
See Thomas, supra note 118, at 178.

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modern trust, avoided feudal incidents of tenancy by separating legal
140
title from beneficial (or equitable) title. In response to the growth
of this custom and the eventual atrophy of feudal incidents, “[Henry
VIII] forced through the Statute of Uses (1536), designed primarily
to prevent evasions of these incidents, and set up the Court of Wards
141
and Liveries to collect them.” This “desperate attempt” by the king
to restore feudal revenues worked, effectively cutting off the use as an
142
effective tax avoidance scheme. More relevant to us, though, is that
this serves as yet another example of how economic concerns drive
legislation, which, in turn, drives the shape of our property system.
In the case of the Statute of Uses, Henry VIII’s need for revenue led
him to pass a statute that significantly changed the nature of property
143
interests that had existed up to that time.
The lesson to take from this, then, is that property law, generally,
and property form, particularly, has been shaped by historical
economic concerns. The De Donis Conditionalibis, the Statute Quia
Emptores, and the Statute of Uses all affected our property forms—
establishing the concept of estates, narrowing the types of estates, and
ultimately affecting the kinds of legal interests permitted within our
system—and all of these statutes arose from the interplay between
144
citizen and government over taxes. These historical forces are what
140

See R. H. Helmholz, The Early Enforcement of Uses, 79 COLUM. L. REV. 1503, 1503
(1979); W. Ives, The Genesis of the Statute of Uses, 82 ENG. HIST. REV. 673, 674 (1967);
Payson R. Peabody, Taming CERCLA: A Proposal to Resolve the Trustee “Owner” Liability
Quandary, 8 ADMIN. L.J. AM. U. 405, 432 (1994); Claude Treece, The ERA and Texas
Marital Law, 54 TEX. L. REV. 590, 610 (1976).
141
JESSE DUKEMINIER ET AL., PROPERTY 190 (7th ed. 2010).
142
See Percy Bordwell, Seisen and Disseisin, 34 HARV. L. REV. 592, 597–98 (1921).
See also Max Gibbons, Of Windfalls and Property Rights: Palazzolo and the Regulatory
Takings Notice Debate, 50 UCLA L. REV. 1259, 1276 n.104 (2003) (“The Statute was the
brainchild of King Henry VIII, who was running out of money and needed to
concoct a system whereby landowners were unable to escape the feudal incidents
owed to the Crown.”). The Statute of Uses also greatly affected our system of
conveyancing by permitting the transfer of real property by documents, see id., thus
bringing into “almost universal use modes of alienation that did not require the
symbolic ceremony [of feoffment].” Joyce Palomar, History of the United States’ System
of Conveyancing, PATTON AND PALOMAR ON LAND TITLES § 3 (2012).
143
See Jeffrey Evans Stake, Evolution of Rules in a Common Law System: Differential
Litigation of the Fee Tail and Other Perpetuities, 32 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 401, 417 (2005)
(“[In 1536, the Statute of Uses] executed ‘uses,’ beneficial interests recognized in
equity, making them into legal interests. Because it was possible to create many sorts
of interests in equity that did not previously exist at law, the Statute of Uses made it
possible for donors to create new legal interests.”); Gibbons, supra note 142, at 1276
(“In 1536 the Statute of Uses was passed in England, the major effect of which was to
convert equitable estates (uses) into legal estates by operation of law.”).
144
The argument that historical forces have shaped property, rather than an
inherent informational cost-benefit analysis, is further supported by the types of

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have shaped property, not something as ephemeral as the numerus
145
clausus doctrine.
The echoes of these forces are with us still. The property laws of
146
England continue to affect American jurisdictions to this day. And
147
the struggle between tax recipients and taxpayers continues as well.
property that have faded into disuse. “In Blackstone’s time, the numerus clausus was
much more numerous, populated with incorporeal hereditaments such as corodies
and advowdsons that no longer exist. Over time, these forms were pared down to the
streamlined list that exists today.” See Heller, supra note 46, at 1176 n.62. See also
Nestor M. Davidson, Standardization and Pluralism in Property Law, 61 Vand. L. Rev.
1597, 1610–11 (2008) (discussing a number of historical property forms that have
been eliminated). Interestingly, these property forms were eliminated in and
around the 14th Century, the timeframe immediately following the De Donis
Conditionalibis and the Statute Quia Emptores. See Dictionary of the English Church,
Ancient and Modern 158 (T. Moore 1881) (“By I Edward III. stat. 2, cap. 10, it was
enacted that there shall be no more grants of corodies at the king’s request by
bishops, abbots, &c.”). That these varied or heterogeneous property types were
excluded at just this point in history seems to support the idea that it was really the
need for taxes that created property form homogeneity.
145
These historical forces explain the homogeneity of property form, but they do
not explain why the rest of property law is so varied (unlike other areas of law). This
heterogeneity may be attributable to the fixed nature of real property and the
parochial interests that arise and attach to land in that context.
Obviously, land does not move—it is forever tied to a single
jurisdiction. This inability to enter any sort of stream of commerce or
to seek out any other laws or rules may remove any incentive any
jurisdiction has to accommodate other views or to evolve or attempt to
reach any useful consensus.
Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 517. It may be that American jurisprudence, having
taken property form as an established part of the background of property
jurisprudence, immediately began to fracture across jurisdictional lines.
146
See David A. Thomas, Anglo-American Land Law: Diverging Developments from a
Shared History: Part III: British and American Real Property Law and Practice—A
Contemporary Comparison, 34 REAL PROP. PROB. & TR. J. 443, 516 (1999) (“Almost every
American state has by constitution or statute ‘received’ the English common law as
the rule of decision in its courts, unless a contrary law or condition prevails in that
state. The result is that, today, in real property matters, the common law of England
plays a much more important role in America than in England.”); see, e.g., Van
Rensselaer v. Hays, 19 N.Y. 68, 74 (N.Y. 1859) (“[I] am of opinion that the law
forbidding the creating of new tenants by means of subinfeudation was always the law
of the Colony, and that it was the law of this State, as well before as after the passage
of our act concerning tenures, in 1787.”).
147
There are many, many ways in which local states and jurisdictions profit from
property. These include, without limitation, property transfer taxes, see, e.g.,
Mushfique Shams Billah, Arab Money: Why isn’t the United States Getting Any?, 32 U. PA.
J. INT’L L. 1055, 1087 (2011); stamp taxes, see Bradley T. Borden & Mathews
Vattamala, Series LLCs in Real Estate Transactions, 46 REAL PROP. TR. & EST. L.J. 255,
258 (2011); and, of course property taxes, see J. Lyn Entrikin, Tax Ferrets, Tax
Consultants, Bounty Hunters, and Hired Guns: The Property Tax Netherworld Fueled by
Contingency Fees and Champertous Agreements, 89 CHI.-KENT L. REV. 289, 289 (2014).
Indeed, state and local governments collected nearly $478 billion in property taxes in
the year ending on March 31, 2013. See Entrikin, supra at 289. This represents “more

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Accordingly, all of the pressures discussed above in the context of
“ancient” England remain with us today. Governments still want to
control the type and form of property to ensure that their revenues
remain consistent, and so they continue to rely on the rules and
structures created by the old laws and statutes of England. As such,
the present shape of history is unavoidably affected by its history and
by the economic forces that have surrounded property for hundreds
of years. Property’s unique role as a source of revenue, then, is the
more likely explanation for the homogeneity present in the area of
property form. Compounding and strengthening this influence is
the fact that property—unlike torts, contracts, and other areas of
law—is of infinite duration.
By virtue of its durability, land invites an intricate layering
of rights over time. Lawyers have never bothered to create
an elaborate doctrine of, say “estates in automobiles” or
“covenants running with automobiles”; nor have they done
so with any other non-landed property. That is because
after only a limited number of years, any given automobile
will end in the junk heap. This finite lifespan keeps
encumbrances on automobiles relatively simple and few in
number.
Land, on the other hand, sticks around indefinitely, while
claims against land can go on and on, in layer after layer, to
be lost, found, banished, restored, relished, then lost again
148
to longstanding practice and prescription.
This infinite duration cuts both ways in terms of heterogeneity.
On one hand, this creates variability because, as Rose indicates,
claims stack up, never truly expiring. As such, the laws and rules that
address and order these claims also stack up and continue on, “layer
after layer,” in Rose’s words. This never-ending aggregation leads to
149
On the other
confusion and the heterogeneity described here.
hand, the unending existence of property means that the revenues
than one third of all state and local government revenue for that time period.” Id.
148
Carol M. Rose, Canons of Property Talk, or, Blackstone’s Anxiety, 108 YALE L.J. 601,
6l4 (1998).
149
It is also likely that land’s fixed geography contributed to said confusion. See
Pomeroy, WPH, supra note 9, at 517. Land is anchored to a single jurisdiction, which
means that its stakeholders cannot seek out more favorable rules or laws, thereby
blunting any incentive a jurisdiction might have to evolve away from anachronistic or
parochial laws. See id. (citing the Uniform Commercial Code, its adoption by states
seeking to protect their relative economic interests, and the uniform laws fostered
thereby as a counter-example).

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150

they generate are also (potentially) unending.
Accordingly, lawmakers (be they kings, state legislatures, or county administrators)
have an ongoing desire to do what Henry VIII and others have done
in channeling property into profitable forms and ensuring that they
151
stay there. This quirky confluence of the state’s profit motive and
the permanence of the governed object, then, ensures that the
property form rules that have solidified under the circumstances
described above, remain static over time.
An article written by Abraham Bell and Gideon Parchomovsky
discussing the numerus clausus supports this conclusion even
152
further. Bell and Parchomovsky argue that the numerus clausus is,
153
as articulated by Merrill and Smith, overstated. In particular, they
acknowledge the existence of a relatively narrow suite of property
types but argue that this narrowness is deceiving given the multiplicity
154
Each
of states and the federalist nature of American government.
state is able to vary the “menu” of property types to suit its own
purposes, which is in turn given effect between and among states
155
This means that “[f]ederalism
pursuant to federalist principles.
allows owners to reach beyond a short menu of forms, making the
number of property forms variable over time and between the
156
157
states.” Spousal and joint property rights are prime examples.

150

See supra note 146 and accompanying text regarding the modern
manifestations of this enormous revenue stream.
151
Contrast this with other ways in which governments raise revenues. By way of
example, consider the American income tax system, which seeks to tax presentperiod (i.e., annual) income from “whatever source derived.” See, e.g., Edward J.
McCaffery & James R. Hines Jr., The Last Best Hope for Progressivity in Tax, 83 S. CAL. L.
REV. 1031, 1041 (2010) (quoting I.R.C. § 61(a) (2013)). The subject of taxation here
is a year’s worth of income, a concept that continually changes over time in response
to economic circumstances and legal ingenuity. As such, the government must do
the same, changing and adapting rules, procedures, and definitions in its neverending desire to acquire revenue based on “new” types of income. Now go back to
the kinds of taxes and fees that flow from property. These revenue streams,
consisting largely of recording and transfer fees, see supra note 146, focus not on an
open-ended notion like “income.” Instead, they focus on a concrete thing known as
“property.” As such, these sources of revenue will vanish if what we consider to be
“property” is permitted to evolve away from the tax laws, as written. So the
government forecloses that by forbidding evolution, thus creating property form
homogeneity.
152
See generally Bell & Parchomovsky, supra note 43.
153
See id. at 75–76.
154
See id.
155
See id.
156
Id. at 76.
157
See id. at 76–77.

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This criticism of Merrill and Smith’s explanation of the numerus
clausus makes sense and does appear to weaken Merrill and Smith’s
informational burden analysis. It is, however, wholly consistent with
the historical explanation. The engine behind the historical need for
158
form homogeneity is, as discussed herein, revenue.
Of course,
159
It is that, and only that,
revenue flows to a particular jurisdiction.
jurisdiction that cares about the relevant revenue and will take steps
to protect it. And, in the case of the revenues flowing from property,
the relevant jurisdictions are primarily states or state-controlled
160
entities.
It is not at all surprising, then, that the “short menu of
forms” would vary from state to state as each such taxing entity seeks
161
to protect its revenue. It is notable, however, that each state, in and
162
of itself, strives for consistency.
Indeed, that is precisely what one
would predict, based on the governmental history of securing
property-based revenue streams outlined herein.
IV. CONCLUSION
Property is a wonderful area of the law, not least because it is so
uniquely fractured among the many different states. Of course, the
well-known exception to this is the area of property form, which is
widely acknowledged as generally static and uniform in nature. This
homogeneity has received a lot of attention in the last decade or so,
largely due to the numerus clausus theory formulated by Merrill and
Smith as an explanation for this curious state of affairs. This Article
argues, however, that much of this attention has been misplaced.
158

See supra notes 101–144 and accompanying text.
See, e.g., George Mundstock, The Tax Import of the FASB/IASB Proposal on Lease
Accounting, 32 VA. TAX REV. 461, 472 (2013) (noting that tax flows to the “relevant
taxing jurisdiction”).
160
See supra notes 145–146 and accompanying text (indicating that the tax
revenues and other fees arising from property largely arise from recording fees,
transfer taxes, and other taxes levied by local, not federal, entities).
161
Bell & Parchomovsky, supra note 43, at 76.
162
See generally id. (focusing on the variability that can arise through federalism, as
opposed to variety that arises in-state). See also Sumner v. Borders, 98 S.W.2d 918
(Ky. 1936). As discussed above, see supra note 98, this case turned upon a state
statute, which stated that, “[u]nless a different purpose appear by express words or
necessary inference, every estate in land created by deed or will, without words of
inheritance, shall be deemed a fee simple or such other estate as the grantor or
testator had power to dispose of.” Id. (citing KY. STAT. 2342). Thus, the
homogeneity supported by this case came not from a concern about informational
burdens or from a federal statute but from a statute promulgated by the
governmental entity most likely to be concerned about property-based revenue. This
again supports my theory that property form homogeneity is based on a historical
concern for revenue protection.
159

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While Merrill and Smith’s theory and its attendant informational
burdens analysis is ingenious in design, it does not withstand careful
scrutiny and so cannot really explain the matter of property form
homogeneity. Instead, we must look to the history of property law
stretching back to 13th century English statutes. These statutes,
shaped by the legal and economic climate existing at the time of their
promulgation, effectively arrested the development of different
property forms and explain why property began to develop along this
path, and the fact that the forces that shaped those statutes are still
with us explains why the inertia of homogeneity never left us. In the
end, then, property is shaped by us, and we never change.

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Chad J. Pomeroy, “The Shape of Property,” St. Mary's Law Digital Repository, accessed September 26, 2017, http://lawspace.stmarytx.edu/item/44SetonHallLRev797.

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