The issue of ownership of real property has frequently arisen in Surrogate’s Court proceedings, most particularly, in the context of applications by a testamentary beneficiary to sell or dispose of realty devised pursuant to the terms of the decedent’s Will. As discussed in my article in the New York Law Journal several years ago, often-times the outcome of such a application hinges upon a determination of whether the beneficiary holds a life estate in the premises or simply a right of occupancy or other lesser interest (see Ilene Sherwyn Cooper, The Meaning of a Life Estate and Other Decisions of Interest, NYLJ, Nov. 10, 2005, at p.3).
Recently, this issue was again before the court in In re Gullo, 7/6/2009 NYLJ. 37 (col 1) (Sur Ct, Suffolk County). In Gullo, the threshold issue before the court was whether the provisions of the decedent’s will provided the petitioner with a life estate in the decedent’s residence. The petitioner requested leave of court to purchase the premises, and to credit herself with the value of her life estate in the property and improvements she made to the premises subsequent to the decedent’s death. The application was opposed by the trustee under the decedent’s will, on the grounds that the petitioner did not receive a life estate in the realty, but rather a fee on limitation. Petitioner claimed the contrary, maintaining that the language in the decedent’s Will provided her with a life estate, and that a sale of the property was both expedient and in the best interests of the estate.
Pursuant to the pertinent provisions of his Will, the decedent devised and bequeathed the subject property to the petitioner, his daughter, as a “life estate”, and authorized her to reside and remain in the premises for as long as she wished, so long as it remained her principal residence. If for any reason the decedent’s daughter declined the life estate, or decided to vacate the property, the Will directed that the property be sold and the net proceeds be distributed pursuant to the provisions of the residuary clause.
In analyzing the issue as to the nature of the petitioner’s interest in the subject premises, the court held that a life estate in property conveys exclusive ownership of the land during the lifetime of the life tenant, subject only to certain well-defined limitations or duties. Moreover, the holder of a life estate may, under certain circumstances, be able to force the sale of the property and collect the value thereof, assuming it is demonstrated that the sale is expedient. The court opined that in comparison to a life estate, a right of occupancy or a lesser interest to a life tenancy is a personal privilege that does not confer the benefits of a life estate.
Although the language of the decedent’s Will utilized the words “life estate” in referring to the petitioner’s interest, the court did not consider that fact dispositive of the issue raised. Further, the Court found that the conditions expressed in the Will requiring the petitioner to pay taxes and maintenance on the property were inconsequential to the result, and insufficient to elevate petitioner’s ownership from a right of occupancy to a life tenancy. Rather, the Court held that the language employed in the instrument was significant of a “fee on limitation”, as defined in EPTL 6-1.1(a)(3). That being the case, the court concluded that petitioner’s interest did not lend itself to computation or application of a credit for a life estate.
Accordingly, the court determined that the petitioner held a fee on limitation in the property and was not entitled to a credit for a life estate. The court further opined that the expediency of the sale was unclear from the record inasmuch as the circumstances which usually give rise to such a conclusion usually involves sales to third parties, and not necessarily parties in possession of the property.