Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Language in deed creating a life estate overrides conflicting technical language found elsewhere in the document

STEVE NEELEY v. ALMEDIA NEELEY (Tenn. Ct. App. April 22, 2009).

The only surviving child of the decedent filed this Complaint against the decedent’s surviving spouse to quiet title and for partition to real estate conveyed to his father in 1975. The plaintiff contends the 1975 deed conveyed a life estate to his father with the remainder interest to his father’s heirs in fee simple at his father’s death. The plaintiff’s father died in 2004, and it is undisputed that he was survived by only two heirs, the plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff contends that he and the defendant each own an undivided one-half interest in the property. The defendant, however, contends her husband acquired a fee simple interest in the property, after which she became a tenant by the entirety with her husband, and, therefore, she became the sole owner of the property at her husband’s death. The trial court found that the original deed granted the decedent a life estate with a remainder to his heirs in fee simple, that any subsequent conveyances by the decedent were subject to the decedent’s life interest, and that the decedent’s heirs acquired fee simple title upon the decedent’s death. On appeal, the defendant contends the trial court erred in finding the original conveyance merely granted her husband a life estate; she also contends the class of “heirs” within the conveyance is void as a violation of the Rule Against Perpetuities. We have determined, as the trial court did, that the original conveyance granted the decedent a life estate with a remainder to his heirs in fee simple, and that the conveyance did not violate the Rule Against Perpetuities. We, therefore, affirm the trial court’s ruling that fee simple title to the property passed upon the decedent’s death to his heirs, the plaintiff and the defendant, in equal shares.

Opinion may be found at the TBA website:

“A deed is to be construed to effect the intention of the grantor. ... The intent of the grantor “is to be ascertained from a ‘consideration of the entire instrument, read in the light of the surrounding circumstances.’” Id. (quoting Thornton, 282 S.W.2d at 363). “[W]ords are to be construed as the grantor intended and not necessarily in their technical sense.” Id. “[I]n construing a deed, the intention of the grantor will be determined without resort to technical rules of construction such as division of the deed into its formal parts with certain parts prevailing over others if at all possible.” Id. ... The intention of the grantor is “ascertained by consideration of the entire instrument of conveyance.” Id. (quoting Lockett v. Thomas, 165 S.W.2d 375, 376 (Tenn. 1942)). As in construing a will, when construing a deed, “the Court is primarily concerned in trying to ascertain the intention of the parties.” Id. ... All of the provisions of a deed are to be considered together and the intention of the grantor of a deed is to “be ascertained from the entire document, not from separate parts thereof, if at all possible.” Id. ... " Id.

“Of all the technical words creating an estate, those creating a life estate are the most easily understood. Certainly they are more easily understood by a layman than the terms tenancy by the entirety, joint tenancy, fee-tail, etc. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the import of the words life estate were [sic] understood by the grantor more so than the legal phrasing in the habendum and covenant clauses and the legal significance of the sentence following the description which, it is contended, creates a tenancy by the entirety.” Id.