The Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled a life estate to a spouse via a will prevented a decedent’s adult child from moving into the family home until his surviving spouse passed away.
Erik Larsen, the decedent, bequeathed his home to his two children, Kirk and Pamela. However, in his will, this was subject to Sandra, his second wife, having the right to live on the property “for as long as she is able.”
This property also contained several cell phone towers leased to Beacon Towers; which was also laid out in Erik’s will to pay monthly rent payments to Sandra “as long as she remained on the property.”
Home Included Cell Phone Towers; Adult Children Seek to Move Onto Property
The present litigation stems from Kirk and Pamela demanding Sandra pay rent and real estate taxes; and that they should be receiving the Beacon Towers payments. Rather than leaving Sandra the entirety of the home, Pamela sought to divide the home into two apartments. Sandra sued Pamela and Kirk for a declaratory judgment and the trial court ruled that the decedent's children could not divide the home (due to the unsuitable living conditions of the basement), that they could not charge Sandra rent (as outlined in the decedent’s will), and that the Beacon Towers payments will continue to be paid to Sandra (as also explicitly outlined in the will).
Adult Children Prohibited from Moving Onto the Property, But Can Periodically Inspect
However, the court did permit the children to make periodic inspections of the property given 24 hour notice.
Kirk and Pamela appealed the trial court's ruling and the case moved to the VA Court of Appeals. On appeal, the children argued that the trial court misapplied Supreme Court Precedent (Larsen v Stack). The court concluded that though the children have concurrent rights to use and access the property, they cannot interfere with Sandra’s right to live on the property by herself (as expressed in the will).
Even If Widow Fails to Maintain Home, Her Life Estate Remains In Place
In spite of the alleged ‘subpar state of the home,’ the court found that dividing the property and sequestering Sandra to the basement would infringe on her right to live there.
Finally, regarding the cell tower payments, the court ruled that there was no error in the trial court's interpretation of the will; the children also did not join the cell tower company as a party on the counterclaim, an objection they raised for the first time on appeal. The trial court ruling was left intact, leaving the widow to enjoy the home for her ‘life estate’ until her death or permanent move from the home–and the beneficiaries left waiting.
If you need assistance interpreting or enforcing a will or trust in Virginia, please contact our law office at Smith Strong, PLC by calling 804.325.1245 or messaging us on this site.
Special thanks to Dayani R. Robinson for editorial assistance in drafting this article. Dayani is a student at the University of Virginia, majoring in Political Science; and worked at Smith Strong, PLC from 2023 - 2024.