Summary of White v. Brown, Supreme Ct. of TN (1977)
Parties: Nieces and nephews of Mr. Lide, as well as Mrs. Lide’s heirs at law other than 2 of her sisters are defending this action.
Cause of action/remedy sought: This is a suit for the construction of a will.
Procedural History: Chancellor held the will passed a life estate but not the remainder in certain realty, leaving the remainder to pass by inheritance to person’s heirs at law. Ordered the property sold with the proceeds distributed in designated shares among the beneficiaries. Court of Appeals affirmed. TN Supreme Court reverses and remands.
Facts: Mrs. Jessie Lide died 2/15/73, leaving a will in her stead to divide the property. The will named her niece as executor, and also the heir of her personal property. Lide’s home was left to her sister-in law, Evelyn White, with the provision the home not be sold (repeated in the short will one other time).
Nieces and nephews of Lide claim the home is rightfully theirs under the premise the estate was a fee simple, whereas White contends
Issue(s): Under property law, is a will’s language by its testatrix/decedent, when viewed as ambiguous as to the nature of the property bequeathed, able to be construed in one meaning?
If so, does the language “my house is not to be sold” indicate the testatrix’s desire for a life estate to the donee beneficiary?
Holding: Yes. The language of the will is determined by the surrounding circumstances and the general nature of wills.
Yes. The common nature of a will is to leave the assets and property to one person, not to have them doled out to several factions and break up a home, in a matter of speaking.
Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: Since the words were chosen were said to be ambiguous in nature, the court tried to look at the primary means of determining how to figure possible meaning. They came up with two circumstances: (1) the surrounding circumstances, and (2) the words and context are to be taken in the most favorable light of not to dispose of their earthly possessions.
The court found the language to still be murky after looking further into the circumstances, but took the will’s language in what they deemed the most favorable light, that being a person would not make a will to have a home sold and its assets broken up into little pieces for several relatives to share.
Rule: If a will is susceptible of two constructions, by one which the testator disposes of the whole estate, and the other where only a part of the estate, dying intestate to the remainder, the first option will prevail.
Did court avoid issues?: Still the issue of the selling of the home was not thoroughly explored. Simply choosing an option seems a bit arbitrary, and although the court has this prerogative, the legal basis is somewhat unfounded, and better explained in the dissent.
Dicta: Make clearer language in wills (top 225).
Dissents: If the court was to go by the surrounding circumstances they claimed in making their decision, the language according to Justice Harrison connoted that the home not be sold, meaning the home was meant as a fee simple, and not a life estate. There is no ambiguity in the language, “house to live in and not to be sold.”
Furthermore, the majority’s view that the language was too restrictive in not allowing White to sell the home is against the very words of the will, which is legal and consistent with the language indicating this was a fee simple.