White v. Brown

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White v. Brown
Court Tennessee Supreme Court
Citation 559 S.W.2d 938
Date decided December 27, 1977

Facts

  • Mrs. Lide = "Lide" = a woman who completed a do-it-yourself will in Tennessee = the testator = owner of a house in Tennessee
  • When still alive, Lide was a widow & childless
  • Lide wrote her short will in 1972 stating that she didn't want her house to be sold--even after death
  • Lide wrote that she wanted White (her sister-in-law) to inherit her house & White's daughter to inherit her personal property
  • Mrs. White = "White" = the beneficiary of the not-so-perfect will = the sister-in-law of Lide
  • Brown = the nieces & nephews of Lide (the testator)
  • After Lide's death, White announced that her ownership of the house was a fee simple absolute with the right to sell

Procedural History

  • White sued Brown (the nieces & nephews) asking the court for a declaratory judgment that she was the house owner in fee simple absolute
  • White lost in the trial court
  • The trial court declared that White only had a life estate
  • At the court of appeals, White lost again

Issues

Is a will presumed to pass the testator's entire interest in real property unless the words & context clearly express a different intent?

Arguments

The nieces & nephews of Lide argued that White only had a life estate

Additionally, the nieces & nephews (Brown) argued that they would inherit the house upon White's death because the house was a life estate

Holding

Yes; the will is presumed to pass the entire interest unless words & context clearly reflect a contrary interest.

The restraint against alienation by White is void because it violated the public policy favoring the free exchange of property. Consequently, the court construes the will to have conveyed the house to White in fee simple absolute without any restraints on sale.

Judgment

Reversed

Reasons

Justice Brock: A restraint against alienation doesn't automatically create a life estate

Rule

  • Justice Brock: If a will is ambiguous, the courts must apply specific rules of construction (interpretation; the act of construing) to determine its meaning.
  • Restraint against Alienation = prohibition against the sale of real property
  • Modern American rule: a will is presumed to create a fee simple absolute

Comments

Dissent of Justice Harbison: The will conveyed a life estate. The majority opinion is wrong.

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