Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Mortmain Statutes Definition:

Statutes of ancient English law which prevented the transfer of real property to or from corporations in general, or to or from religious corporations in particular.

Related Terms: Mortmain

Also called mortmain acts.

Mortmain means, in French, dead hands and refers to the fact that certain landowners were no longer able receive or sale or gift their title of land; that their title was as if in dead hands (mort mains).

Brown (1874) describes mortmain acts as follows:

“Mortmain acts ... had for their object the prevention of lands getting into the possession or control of religious corporations....”

The law evolved and eventually allowed the transfer, gifting or vesting of real property to religions or other charitable corporations under strict conditions such as specified written deeds and strict wording, all of which have long since been removed or considerably relaxed. Even in the heyday of mortmain statutes, many corporations were granted individual exemptions such as Cambridge and Oxford universities and many charitable organizations.


  • Brown, Archibald, A New Law Dictionary and Institute of the Whole Law for the Use of Students, the Legal Profession and the Public (London: Stevens & Sons, 1874), Page 244-246
  • Walsh, C., Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law (London: Sweet & Maxwell Limited, 1959), page 1194-1195

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