A life estate is an interest in property for the life of an individual—called a life tenant—that passes to someone else at the death of the life tenant. The person who receives the property after the death of the life tenant is called a remainderman. In a recent case, a Tennessee court had to interpret a will that left a life estate to a life tenant with a remainder to her “bodily heirs.”
Robert Stone’s will left a life estate to his daughter Nellie, with the remainder to go in equal shares to Nellie’s “bodily heirs.” Nellie had three children, but two of those children died before Nellie did. One of the deceased children was survived by four children (Nellie’s grandchildren). The question before the court was whether Nellie’s grandchildren could be considered Nellie’s “bodily heirs.”
“Bodily heirs” (sometimes called “heirs of the body”) is antiquated language for lineal descendants. The term is intended to distinguish between a person’s natural descendants and the person’s other heirs, such as a spouse or friend. Like most states, the Tennessee court defined “bodily heirs” to mean lineal descendants of a specific person who would inherit the property through intestate succession. “Bodily heirs” does not necessarily mean “children.” The term includes generations, extending down to grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc.
The court held that biological grandchildren qualify as lineal descendants of their grandparents. If Nellie’s four grandchildren were her biological grandchildren (as opposed to adopted grandchildren), then they will be able to inherit the property under the terms of the will. There was some question as to which of the four were actually biologically related to Nellie or were adopted or stepchildren of Nellie’s son. The appellate court remanded the case to determine which ones were biological grandchildren of Nellie so that those individuals could inherit their portion of the estate.
Here is a lesson in the importance of clear drafting. If Mr. Stone’s will had included clear definitions of the class of beneficiaries he intended to benefit (instead of relying on arcane language like “bodily heirs”), this confusion could have been avoided. If the will isn’t clear enough, then the courts are called on to interpret the language of the will in accordance with binding precedent.
Chambers v. Devore, No. W2008-02548-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 3739443 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 9, 2009).