Brief Fact Summary. James J. Braswell, original grantor, in 1903, devised property in a life estate to Nathaniel Braswell, and to Nathaniel’s heirs at his death, but that if Nathaniel died without leaving heirs of his body, then the property was to revert back to James Braswell or James Braswell’s heirs. In this case the original grantor died intestate in 1932 leaving three sons as sole heirs at law (S.J. Braswell, W.H. Braswell, and Nathaniel Braswell the life tenant). Nathaniel Braswell, life tenant, died testate and without issue in 1952, and devised all his real property to Charles Braswell, the Plaintiff.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The doctrine of worthier title simply means that a grant of an inter vivos life estate with the remainder to the heirs of the next of kin is ineffective to create a remainder, but does leave in the grantor a reversion which will pass by operation of law at his death, unless he has otherwise disposed of the reversion interest.
Issue. What is the proper construction of the last portion of the original conveyance: “if the said Nathaniel T. Braswell should die leaving no lawful heir of his body, then the land herein conveyed shall revert back to the said James J. Braswell or to his lawful heirs.” [emphasis added]?
If the language creates a remainder to the heirs of the grantor upon the occurrence of Nathaniel’s death in 1952, then only the two remaining sons of James Braswell would own an interest and the Plaintiff would not take; but
If the doctrine of worthier title applies as a rule of construction, then the last portion of the conveyance will be held to be reversion interest to the grantor (or in this case the heirs of the grantor, inclusive of Nathaniel, who had conveyed his interest to Plaintiff).
Held. The last portion of the conveyance is a reversion. Judgment affirmed.
The Court distinguished the interests of remainder and reversion. “A remainder is defined as ‘what is left’ of an entire grant of lands after a preceding part of the same grant or estate has been disposed of. . . whose regular expiration the remainder must await. A reversion is the remnant of an estate continuing in the grantor, undisposed of, after the grant of a part of his interest.” [citing Copenhaver v. Pendleton, 155 S.E. 802]. The key difference is that the reversion arises by an act of the law, while a remainder is from an act of the parties.
The Court recognizes the rule of the doctrine of worthier title. The doctrine of worthier title simply means that a grant of an inter vivos life estate with the remainder to the heirs of the next of kin is ineffective to create a remainder, but does leave in the grantor a reversion which will pass by operation of law at his death, unless he has otherwise disposed of the reversion interest.
The Court found that in this case the grantor had not otherwise disposed of the reversion, and that, upon the death of the life tenant without issue, the estate reverted to the grantor, who was deceased intestate, thus, to his heirs. The heirs of the grantor were his three sons. Nathaniel’s interest had been conveyed by will to Plaintiff. Therefore, Plaintiff had a one-third undivided interest in the property.
The Court stated that for the rule against remainders to heirs of grantors (worthier title) to be applied, 1. There must be an inter vivos transfer and 2. If the subject matter is realty then there must be a limitation to the grantor’s heirs, where “heirs” is used in the technical meaning, or an equivalent limitation.
The Court found that the proper time to determine the heirs of the grantor was at the time of the grantor’s death and not at the time of the life tenant’s death. Thus, the grantor died with three heirs, and one of them (Nathaniel, the life tenant) willed his interest in the property to Plaintiff, which entitles Plaintiff to an undivided one-third share and the right to proceed in partition.
Discussion. This case is useful for the definitions of reversion and remainder and for the Court’s explanation of the construction of the wording of the 1903 conveyance. It illustrates the difficulty of drafting conveyances and the absolute necessity of precision in language.