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White v. Brown

    Brief Fact Summary. Action to determine whether a will conveyed a fee simple in the Plaintiff, Evelyn White (Plaintiff), or merely a life estate in the Plaintiff with the remainder interest to go to Defendants.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Rules of construction of an ambiguous will favors a conveyance of fee simple absolute.

    Facts. The Plaintiff filed an action against the Defendants, Helen Brown and others (Defendants), the remaining heirs of the testatrix, alleging that the Plaintiff was vested with fee simple in testatrix’s house by terms of the will. The will stated that the Plaintiff was to have the home to live in and not be sold. The Defendants claim that the Plaintiff was merely given a life estate in the home leaving the remainder to go to them under interstate succession. The lower court found the will unambiguously created only a life estate in the Plaintiff. The Supreme Court found that it was not clear by words alone the intent of the testatrix and declared that the rules of construction of a will along with the testatrix’ intent must be used to determine intent. The court stated unless the words and context of the will clearly evidences only an intention to carry a life estate, the will should be construed as passing the home in fee simple. The court exampled the language of the will and di
    d not see any evidence of a life estate or a remainder created by the termination of a life estate.

    Issue. Whether the will of the deceased, minding the rules of construction that favors passing of property in fee simple, clearly evidences an intent to convey only a life estate in her home.

    Held. Reversed. Testatrix’s apparent testamentary restraint that her house not be sold does not evidence a clear intent to pass only a life estate to overcome the law’s strong presumption that a fee simple interest was conveyed.

    Dissent. The language of the will did not appear to be ambiguous and there did not appear to be any intent to convey a fee simple interest in her residence. The language in the will concerning the house, to live in and not to be sold, implies a life estate and not an outright gift of fee simple.

    Discussion. The possessory interests of a life estate convey an interest in the grantee for his life allowing the grantor to determine who will control the remainder of the property at the end of the life estate. If the grantor does not state who will take the property at the end of the life estate the remainder of the property will revert back to the grantor. A possessory interest of fee simple means the grantee receives every interest in the property and can do whatever he wants with the property, such as sell it or leave it to his heirs. When constructing a will it is important to clearly delineate the intent of the grantor, as rules of constructions of wills will favor fee simple possessory interests as to not alienate the property interest. Non-alienation of land is favored by courts so as not to make the land unmarketable, make it impossible for the land to be sold, discourage improvements on the land or prevent the owner’s creditors from reaching the property.


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