Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
Deeds containing executory limitations have been held to create a life estate with a valid remainder interest ever since the abolition of the rule in Shelley's Case in 1851 with the enactment of Tennessee Code Annotated § 66-1-103. Prior to the statutory abolition of the rule, a deed that conveyed an interest in realty to someone "during her natural life" and "at her death to descend to her bodily heirs" came under the rule in Shelley's Case and gave the first taker the whole estate. However, because the rule has long been abolished, a life estate is created in the first taker with the remainder to those who take at the termination of the life estate. Where a deed conveys a life estate to a person with remainder to his heirs, the heirs will, under the statute abolishing the rule in Shelley's Case, take a remainder estate.
Decedent Thomas Neeley took title to the disputed property under a 1975 warranty deed, the granting clause of which stated that the grantor transferred and conveyed unto Thomas Neeley, for and during his natural life and at his death to his heirs, the parcel of real estate, forever in fee simple. Upon decedent’s death, Plaintiff, Steve Neeley, the only surviving child of the decedent, sued Defendant Almedia Neeley, the decedent’s surviving spouse, to quiet title and for partition to the real estate conveyed to the decedent in 1975. The Plaintiff contended that the 1975 deed conveyed a life estate to the decedent with the remainder interest to the decedent's heirs in fee simple upon the decedent's death; thereby, he and Defendant each owned an undivided one-half interest in the property. However, Defendant asserted the decedent acquired a fee simple interest in the property, after which she became a tenant by the entirety with the decedent, and that she became the sole owner of the property upon his death. In the alternative, Defendant contended that the deed violated the Rule Against Perpetuities because the remainder class, the heirs, was not identifiable nor was it vested at the time of the conveyance. The Bedford County Chancery Court, Tennessee, found that fee simple title to the property passed upon the decedent's death to Plaintiff and Defendant in equal shares. Defendant appealed the judgment.
The Court noted that a deed has to be construed to effect the intention of the grantor, which was to be ascertained from a consideration of the entire instrument, read in the light of the surrounding circumstances. Moreover, in Barber v. Westmoreland, 601 S.W.2d 712, 713-14 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1980), it was stated that the language contained in the granting clause controlled. In this case, the granting clause in the 1975 deed to Thomas Neely unequivocally stated that he received the property “for and during Thomas Neeley’s natural life and at Thomas Neely’s death to Thomas Neely’s heirs.” Applying the reasoning in Barber, the Court found that the 1975 deed granted the decedent a life estate, not a fee simple interest, and following the decedent's death, the remaining interests passed to his heirs, Plaintiff and Defendant. Anent the second issue, the Court held that the 1975 deed did not violate the Rule Against Perpetuities. The Court noted that the rule against perpetuities was that executory limitations, in order to be valid, “must vest in interest, if at all, within a life or lives in being and 21 years and a fraction thereafter, or the term of gestation in cases of posthumous birth." The Court held that in this case, the executory limitation vested at the time of Thomas Neeley's death; thus, it vested during a life that was in being at the time of the 1975 deed, Thomas Neeley. The Court further held that the triggering event that defined who was in the class of remainderman was the death of the life tenant, regardless of whether the limitation used the term “heirs” or “heirs of the body.” The Court thus held that the 1975 deed granting the contingent remainder to Thomas Neely’s “heirs” did not violate the Rule Against Perpetuities.