Legal Meanings of “Determine” and “Determinable”

Common Words with Uncommon Legal Meanings

There are several legal contexts in which “determine” actually means “terminate,” i.e., “to come or bring to an end,” an archaic usage that is often unknown to nonlawyers and which may prompt confusion in translation. As examples, an “option to determine the lease” refers to an “option to terminate” that lease, while “this agreement shall determine upon the expiry of the Term” means that the lease will “terminate” when the Term expires.

Likewise, the adjective “determinable” is often used to describe an interest in property that will automatically terminate upon the occurrence of a specified event. Thus, the expressions “determinable fee estate,” “determinable fee,” and “fee simple determinable” refer to an estate (in this case, an ownership interest) in real property liable to terminate automatically if a given event occurs. If the event never occurs, ownership is absolute. As an example, if property is conveyed to a church “as long as it is used for church purposes,” the church has a fee simple determinable in that property. If the church ceases to use the property for church purposes, its rights in the property will terminate. Similarly, an “easement” (servidumbre) may likewise be created to determine (terminate) upon the happening of a specific occurrence (called a “determinable easement”).

(For more on easements, see here.)

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