The primary issue was whether Vada Wallace Allen intended to devise a fee-simple interest or a lifeestate interest to her son, Bobby Gray. To determine Vada’s intent, the court analyzed the language of the will compared with the entirety of the instrument.
The language in question was as follows:
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.73
Bobby sold the land devised to him by his mother to Polasek Farms, LLC (“Polasek Farms”). Annette Knopf and Stanley Gray (collectively, “Knopf”) argued that the transaction must be void because the language in Vada’s will devised a life estate to respondent and a remainder interest to them, his children. Knopf filed suit against Bobby and Polasek Farms, seeking a declaratory judgment that the testator intended to devise a life estate, not a fee simple interest.74 The trial court granted Polasek Farms’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the contested provision contained an invalid disabling restraint and therefore vested Bobby with a fee simple interest. The appeals court affirmed this judgment, finding the phrase “passed on down” to the children was merely an instruction rather than a gift to the children. The Supreme Court of Texas granted the petition for review over this issue.
Knopf argued the use of “passed on down” instructed their father, Bobby, to devise the land to them after his death for their benefit. Bobby and Polasek Farms countered by claiming the phrase “the land is not to be sold” was an invalid disabling restraint. The court determined the top priority in addressing this issue was to ascertain the testator’s intent and to enforce that intent to the extent allowed by law.75 To do so they analyzed the instrument’s language “as a whole,”76 instead of narrowly interpreting these small-worded phrases individually. After careful review, they determined the phrase “passed on down” unambiguously encompassed a transfer upon Bobby’s death. Additionally, the court interpreted the phrase “the land is not to be sold” as an inherent restraint on alienation of the remainder interest. Upon these determinations, they concluded Vada’s intent was to convey Bobby a life estate, with a remainder interest in his children. Therefore, Bobby’s conveyance to Polasek Farms was void because his interest in the property is limited by the general requirement that he preserve his children’s interest in the land.
In conclusion, the court reversed and remanded the appellate court’s order in favor of Knopf. Although there are no magic words to create a life estate,77 this case indicates that a life estate is created “where the language of the instrument manifests an intention on the part of the grantor or testator to pass to a grantee or devisee a right to possess, use, or enjoy property during the period of the grantee’s life[,]”78 and thus, underscores the importance of drafting instruments with language that objectively manifests the grantor’s intent. When conveying a life estate, avoid using additional unnecessary language that may lend itself to multiple interpretations.
72 Knopf v. Gray, No. 17-0262, slip op., 2018 WL 1440160 (Tex. Mar. 23, 2018).
73 Id. at * 1.
75 Sellers v. Powers, 426 S.W.2d 533, 536 (Tex. 1968).
76 Stephens v. Beard, 485 S.W.3d 914, 916 (Tex. 2016).
77 Welch v. Straach, 531 S.W. 2d 319, 321 (Tex. 1975).
78 Freedom Senior Funding Corp. v. Horrocks , 294 S. W. 3d 749, 755 (Tex. App. 2008).