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McIntyre v. Scarbrough

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant sold a large tract of land to Plaintiff, reserving a life estate in 1.2 acres of that land. Defendant did not pay taxes on the property from 1990 to 1994 and the home on the property had fallen into a state of disrepair. Plaintiff petitioned to terminate Defendant’s life estate because of waste. The trial court granted summary judgment for Plaintiff on the grounds that the evidence conclusively established that Defendant had committed waste. Defendant appealed.

     

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A life estate can be terminated because of the tenant’s waste.

    Facts.

    In 1988, McIntyre (Defendant) sold a large tract of land to Scarbrough (Plaintiff) but reserved a life estate in 1.2 acres of that land. Defendant was responsible for maintaining the land and the home on the 1.2 acres and for paying ad valorem taxes. However, from 1990 to 1994, Defendant failed to pay taxes. Plaintiff also alleged that she had not seen Defendant since 1990 and offered evidence that the latter’s home had been unoccupied for some time and had fallen into a state of disrepair. There was testimony that it posed a fire and health hazard. Plaintiff petitioned to terminate Defendant’s life estate because of waste. Defendant was 90 years old and not living on the subject premises because of illness, but her grandson apparently had undertaken some repairs. Defendant claimed that she intended to return to the property, citing personal belongings that were still at the home as well as her grandson’s repairs. She argued that her poor health and hardship prevented her from maintaining the property. The trial court granted summary judgment for Plaintiffon the grounds that the evidence conclusively established that Defendant had committed waste. Defendant appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether a life estate can be terminated because of a tenant’s waste.

    Held.

    Yes. The trial court’s ruling is affirmed. A life estate can be terminated because of the tenant’s waste.

    Dissent.

    (Benham, J.):This court has previously held that forfeiture can happen only if there is both permissive and active waste, particularly when, as here, the tenant’s waste is unintentional or due to the tenant’s hardship or other inability to maintain the land. Here, Defendant is now 90 years old and in bad health. Her grandson apparently had undertaken some repairs. These facts at least raise a triable issue of fact regarding whether Defendant’s neglect was voluntary. Therefore, the decision of the lower court granting summary judgment should be reversed and remanded for trial.

    Discussion.

    A life tenant has the full use and enjoyment of property as long as she exercises ordinary care to preserve and protect the property, i.e., does not commit waste. Otherwise, the tenant forfeits her life estate. Failure to pay property taxes generally constitute waste because the land may have to be sold to raise the proceeds needed to pay the taxes. Here, Defendant failed to pay the ad valorem taxes, an obligation which was an express condition of the initial sale.


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