By recent opinion in the matter of Sandra Flora Snead Larsen v. Pamela Larsen Stack, et al., the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a Trial Court’s decision relating to ambiguous provisions in a will relating to purported life estates. The opinion provides an instructive analysis and look at the legal principles relating to a somewhat common estate dispute scenario.
The facts of the case were that the Testator’s (will maker) will (“Will”) divided his estate between his wife (“Wife”), two children (“Children”), and grandchildren. At issue was a certain provision of his Will that left certain real property (the “Cell Tower Property”) to his Children, “subject to [his] wife . . . having the right to reside in [the] home . . . for so long as she is physically and mentally able to do so . . . .” Such provision also provided that his Wife would receive rental payments pursuant to a cellular tower agreement “for as long as she resides in our home . . . .”
Another provision of the Will expressly granted Testator’s Wife a “life estate” in separate real property located in another county, with the remainder interest of such land passing to his Children. This use of different phrasing created ambiguity as to the Wife’s rights to the various real estate parcels.
The Trial Court’s Decision
After Testator’s passing, the Children of the Testator filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment that sought a determination of the Wife’s rights in the real estate. The Children of the Testator thought that Wife did not have a true life estate in the formerly described real property, but rather, something less, perhaps a limited life estate “for so long as she is physically and mentally able to do so.”
At trial, the Trial Court held that the Will was ambiguous and permitted the drafting attorney to testify about the Testator’s intent. The drafting attorney testified that Testator was concerned that Wife may try to sell her life interest in the Cell Tower Property. The drafting attorney also testified that Testator intended for Wife to reside at the Cell Tower Property for as long as she could, before she had to go into a nursing home, for example.
The Trial Court held that Wife did not have a life estate in the Cell Tower Property, and that her rights to such property terminated when she no longer was able to physically or mentally reside in the home.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s Opinion
On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court analyzed the Will anew, and ultimately upheld the Trial Court’s decision. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court first looked at the intent of the Testator in drafting the Will.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion recited the basic principles of Virginia law relating to a life estate. A life estate in Virginia is an estate held for a duration of a particular person’s life. That life tenant has the right to possess and enjoy the real estate, including being entitled to all profits arising during their tenancy. The life tenant has an obligation to pay taxes and preserve the property. The Virginia Supreme Court also made it clear that no particular words are required to create a life estate, rather, life estates may arise by express language or implication.
Applying these principles, the Virginia Supreme Court pointed out that Testator gave Wife a life estate as to particular real estate (not the Cell Tower Property) in the Will, and, in fact, used that exact phrasing. Based on this, the Virginia Supreme Court concluded that Testator did not intend to give Wife a life estate in the Cell Tower Property because he did not use that same phrasing in that section.
Moreover, the Virginia Supreme Court pointed out that Testator’s express provision in his Will (of Wife receiving the monthly rental payments for the Cell Tower Property) made it clear that it was not a life estate. The Virginia Supreme Court reasoned that if Testator had indeed given Wife a life estate, this provision (relating to the monthly rental payments) would not have been necessary, as Wife would have been entitled to those payments as a matter of law as a life tenant.
As a second issue, the Virginia Supreme Court made it clear that the Children had concurrent rights to the Cell Tower Property, even during Wife’s exercise of her rights to the same. The Virginia Supreme Court pointed out that the Will did not provide that Wife had exclusive possession of the Cell Tower Property. Additionally, the Virginia Supreme Court provided that the Children have concurrent rights to access such property, provided that they did not interfere with Wife’s rights.
As a final issue, the Virginia Supreme Court also approved the use of parol evidence (evidence from outside the written pages of a contract or will) from the drafting attorney. The Virginia Supreme Court held that when wills are ambiguous, it is appropriate for a court to consider parol evidence to ascertain their meaning and/or the testator’s intent. Ultimately, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the Trial Court’s decision.
This opinion provides a useful analysis of life estates in Virginia, including how they are created in wills or otherwise. Life estates (and estate disputes involving them) involve complex legal and factual issues. If faced with such a dispute, it is best to speak with an experienced estate dispute attorney.