Texas Supreme Court Holds That Testator Devised Property As A Life Estate

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In Knopf v. Gray, the will disposed of the testator’s entire estate, specifically including a tract of land. No. 17-0262, 2018 Tex. LEXIS 249 (Tex. March 23, 2018). The provision through which the testator devised the land stated: “NOW BOBBY I leave the rest to you, everything, certificates of deposit, land, cattle and machinery, Understand the land is not to be sold but passed on down to your children, ANNETTE KNOPF, ALLISON KILWAY, AND STANLEY GRAY. TAKE CARE OF IT AND TRY TO BE HAPPY.” Id. The testator’s son attempted to then transfer the land to a third party, and his children sued for a declaration that the son did not have the right to do so because he only had a life estate. The parties filed competing summary judgment motions, and the trial court and court of appeals both ruled for the son.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed both lower courts. The Court first reviewed the standards for interpreting wills:

A court must construe a will as a matter of law if it has a clear meaning. However, when a will’s meaning is ambiguous, its interpretation becomes a fact issue for which summary judgment is inappropriate. A will is ambiguous when it is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation or its meaning is simply uncertain. Whether a will is ambiguous is a question of law for the court. The cardinal rule of will construction is to ascertain the testator’s intent and to enforce that intent to the extent allowed by law. We look to the instrument’s language, considering its provisions as a whole and attempting to harmonize them so as to give effect to the will’s overall intent. We interpret the words in a will as a layperson would use them absent evidence that the testator received legal assistance in drafting the will or was otherwise familiar with technical meanings.

Id. The issue in the case is whether the land was devised in fee simple or whether a life estate was created. The Court stated that “An estate in land that is conveyed or devised is a fee simple unless the estate is limited by express words, but the law does not require any specific words or formalities to create a life estate.” Id. The words used in the will must only evidence intent to create what lawyers know as a life estate. “[A] will creates a life estate ‘where the language of the instrument manifests an intention on the part of the grantor or testator to pass to a grantee or devisee a right to possess, use, or enjoy property during the period of the grantee’s life.’” Id.

The Court held that the provision, read as a whole, merely created a life estate:

We need only read the provision as a whole to see a layperson’s clearly expressed intent to create what the law calls a life estate. Reading all three clauses together, Allen grants the land to Bobby subject to the limitations that he not sell it, that he take care of it, and that it be passed down to his children. This represents the essence of a life estate; a life tenant’s interest in the property is limited by the general requirement that he preserve the remainder interest unless otherwise authorized in the will. Allen’s words in the contested provision unambiguously refer to elements of a life estate and designate her grandchildren, the petitioners, as the remaindermen. The language thus clearly demonstrates that the phrase “passed on down,” as used here, encompasses a transfer upon Bobby’s death.

Id. Therefore, the Court reversed and rendered for the son’s children.

 



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