In a Texas will, the mother said this: “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.”
The Texas Supreme Court had to construe the will. The problem language was that shown above. The question was about Bobby’s interest in the land: did Bobby own the land outright as the trial court and court of appeals had ruled or did he just own a life estate holding the property for his life but not being able to dispose of the children’s remainder interest?
After his mother died, Bobby sold the land to others. Two of his children sued Bobby and the others. They sought a declaratory judgment that Bobby could only convey a life estate in the land since the will created a life estate and not a fee simple interest. Fee simple interest means that the person owns the land for all purposes and may convey all or part of the land.
Did the will give a fee simple interest or a life estate?
Knopf v. Gray, No. 17-0262, (Tex. March 23, 2018)
The cardinal rule of will construction is to ascertain the testator’s intent and to enforce that intent to the extent allowed by law.
Here, the parties dispute whether Allen intended to devise to Bobby a fee-simple interest in the land at issue or only a life estate. “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…(t)herefore, the words used in the will must only evidence intent to create what lawyers know as 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.
The Supreme Court agreed with Bobby’s children that the will only devised Bobby a life estate. Sine he only owned a life estate, that is all he could deed away. Once Bobby passed on, the land would belong to the children.
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