Can Life Estate Beneficiaries Force Sale of Property for Failure to Pay Costs?

 In Probate, Real Estate
life estate

Photo by Ronnie Mayo on Unsplash


I live in Tennessee where my mother-in-law recently passed away. She had six children. In her will, she left one son her home in a life estate. She did not file a deed. Under the terms of the will, upon his death or if he does not live in home for a period of 30 days ownership reverts to his siblings. Does a life estate deed have to be filed to get house out of my mother-in-law’s name. If the brother with the life estate does not keep the house up, pay taxes, etc., can the siblings sell home?


The answers to your questions depend both on Tennessee law and the exact wording of the will, but here are the general principles. A life estate in a deed is a clear property right, but this is not what your brother-in-law has. Instead, his interest is more like an interest in trust. The terms of the will continue to govern his interest even after the will has been probated. In other words, he has a life “interest” — a benefit — rather than a life “estate” — a property right.

Normally a life estate holder’s failure to pay taxes or upkeep on the property, or to move out, has no affect on their ownership interest, but could give the other beneficiaries a right for damages. But that could be different in your family’s case depending on what the will says. It  could condition his interest on his paying those costs. But it sounds like it doesn’t do that, making this more of a gray area.

I did a quick on-line search of Tennessee case law and did not find a case directly on point (though without seeing the will itself, I can’t be completely certain what case law applies). However, the case Fell v. Rambo (2002) is interesting because it makes clear how much the results depend on the wording of the will and the specifics of Tennessee law.  In fact, in this case Tennessee changed its law between the execution of the will in question in 1959 and the life tenant’s death in 1994 and the resolution of the dispute depended entirely on which law should be applied, that in place when the will was signed or that in place upon the life tenant’s death.

To be certain of the answer in your case, you will have to consult with a Tennessee estate planning attorney who can review the actual wording of the will in light of current Tennessee law.

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