Brief Fact Summary. The estate of a life estate holder of a farm and farmhouse is sued on the theory of waste to recover damages for the deterioration of the farmhouse.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A life tenant has a duty to keep the property in reasonable repair so as to prevent decay or waste.
The life tenant is a trustee in the sense that he cannot injure or dispose of the property to the injury of the rights of the remainderman but he differs from a pure trustee in that he may use the property for his exclusive benefit and take all the income and profits.View Full Point of Law
Issue. When remaindermen wait eleven years after the death of the life tenant before filing a claim or demand against the life tenant for neglect, are they barred by laches or estoppel?
Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
A life tenant is considered to be a trustee or quasi-trustee and has a fiduciary relationship to the remaindermen. The life tenant cannot use the property in a way that would harm the rights of the remaindermen, but he may use the property for his exclusive benefit and take all the income and profits. The life tenant has a duty to return the property to the remaindermen at the end of the term unimpaired by the negligent of the tenant.
Waste includes the neglect or misconduct resulting in material damages to or loss of property, but does not include ordinary depreciation of property due to age and normal use. Voluntary waste is the commission of some deliberate or voluntary destructive act. Permissive waste is the failure of the tenant to exercise the ordinary care of a prudent man for the preservation and protection of the estate.
A remainderman can recover compensatory damages or injunctive relief. When the remainderman’s action is based on permissive waste, the injury is continuing in nature and the statute of limitations does not commence to run in favor of the tenant until the expiration of the tenancy.
Laches is the result of a failure to act or a delay that works a disadvantage to another; estoppel may involve an affirmative act on the part of some party of the suit.
Laches or estoppel does not apply in this case because the life tenant did not keep the property in reasonable repair, which was her responsibility. Permissive waste occurred on the property while she was in possession of it. Any delay in filing the action after the life tenant’s death could not have resulted in prejudice to her estate.
Discussion. Remaindermen have the right to receive their property in reasonable repair. A life tenant cannot use property in a way that injures the rights of remaindermen.