The New International Encyclopædia/Civil Death

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Edition of 1905.  See also Civil death on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CIVIL DEATH (Lat. mors civilis). The status of a living person who is deprived by law of his legal and civil rights.

The term is of feudal origin, and was introduced into the English law after the Norman Conquest. At that time civil death was one of the consequences of treason, banishment from the realm, abjuration of the realm (by which a criminal escaped other punishment by leaving the country forever), felony, and the act of entering upon a monastic life as a monk or nun; and in all of these cases, except felony, there was a total extinction of all civil rights, including loss of real and personal property, as if the person were physically dead. To avoid the effect of this, conveyances frequently made grants of estates for the ‘natural life’ of a person; and this phrase is used to-day in creating life estates, although the original reason for inserting the word ‘natural’ has ceased. Treason and abjuration of the realm involved forfeiture of property to the Crown as a penalty; but one taking monastic vows could make a will and appoint an executor to administer his estate.

In the United States, generally, civil death can occur only as the result of a sentence of imprisonment for life; but the doctrine is modified, so that there is only a partial extinction of the convict's rights, as in the New York statute providing that a sentence of life imprisonment shall operate as an absolute divorce of the felon from wife or husband; and in no case does his property descend to his heirs, as under the early law of England. The English law has also been greatly modified by statutes and decisions. For an annotation on civil death in the United States, consult Davis vs. Laning, 18 Law Rep. Annot., 1882.

In some of the countries of Europe, the ancient doctrine is still applied in cases of persons entering a monastic life. See Attainder; Forfeiture; Outlawry.