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Texas Property Law: The Essence of a Life Estate

In the recent opinion of Knopf v Gray, the Texas Supreme Court instructs as to the essence of a life estate under Texas law. Whatever specific words are used to create a life estate, a testator must express three ideas:

  • Any land granted is subject to the limitations that it not be sold;
  • That the grantee take care of the land; and
  • That the land be passed to designated remaindermen.

According to the Supreme Court, that is the meaning of this paragraph from a 1993 Last Will and Testament:

“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.”


Vada Wallace Allen (“Allen”) died on June 8, 1993, and her will was admitted to probate on November 9, 1993. At the time of her death, Allen owned approximately 316 acres of mostly farmland in Robertson County, Texas. The will was short, not drafted by an attorney and was described as a “kitchen table will” in the dissent by Court of Appeals Judge Tom Gray. The summary judgment record showed that Allen “… was working from copies of at least two different wills.”

Aside from about a dozen specific bequests to her grandchildren and others, Allen gave all of her estate to her son, William Robert “Bobby” Gray and included the paragraph quoted above. Bobby and his wife Karen conveyed some of the land  to Polasek Farms, LLC via multiple warranty deeds. This prompted one of the grandchildren, Annette Knopf, to bring suit against Bobby, Karen, and Polasek Farms, seeking a declaratory judgment that Allen devised only a life estate to Bobby and that the fee simple deeds to Polasek Farms were invalid.

Various cross-motions for summary judgment were filed. The trial court granted one of the motions and ruled that Allen granted the lands to Bobby in fee simple and that the provision stating that he could not sell the land was an unenforceable and invalid disabling restraint. A divided Texas Court of Appeals affirmed and added that the will’s language regarding passing the land on down to the children was merely “an instruction” to Bobby rather than a gift to the children.  The dissent argued that there were fact questions that prevented a grant of summary judgment.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals holding that Allen’s will clearly created a life estate.

Legal Principles With Respect to Will Construction

In its opinion, the Supreme Court reiterated the cardinal rule of will construction – to ascertain the testator’s intent and to enforce that intent to the extent allowed by law. The question in this case was whether Allen intended to devise to Bobby a fee simple interest in the land or only a life estate. In holding that Allen intended to devise a life estate, the Court looked to the entirety of the will and the paragraph quoted above. The Court rejected the narrow focus of the litigants on the three-word phrase “pass on down” in reference to the Bobby passing the land down to Allen’s grandchildren.

The Court referenced Texas Property Code § 5.001(a) which states that “[a]n estate in land that is conveyed or devised is a fee simple unless the estate is limited by express words.” However, the Court noted that a testator need not use any specific words or formalities to create a life estate. The Court also referenced the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of a life estate as an “estate held only for the duration of a specified person’s life.” Based on a review of case law, the Court discussed that a life estate has three elements:

  • Grant of land with the limitation on the grantee’s ability to sell the land;
  • Requirement that the grantee maintain the land; and
  • Designation of remaindermen to receive the land after the grantee’s passing.

Based on a full reading of Allen’s will, the Supreme Court held that Allen had granted a life estate. As the Court stated: “Allen’s words in the contested provision unambiguously refer to elements of a life estate and designate her grandchildren, the petitioners, as the remaindermen. The language thus clearly demonstrates that the phrase “passed on down,” as used here, encompasses a transfer upon Bobby’s death.”

The Court further held that several other provisions in the will “cemented” their conclusion. Allen used similar limiting language with respect to other specific bequests. For example, Allen gave 10.5 acres of land to her grand-daughter Allison Kilway with the proviso that “[t]his land not to be sold but to be passed on or given to her natural born children.” From this and other provisions, the Court concluded that “… the will as a whole indicates an intent [by Allen] to keep her property in her family and to bequeath certain property to multiple generations.” For these reasons, the trial court decision was reversed.

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