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What Duty Do Remaindermen Owe One Another?

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A very interesting case, James B. Lodigiani, et al. v. Nina Pare (Mass. App. No. 22-P-459, August 22, 2023), provides guidance on the respective duties of life tenants and remaindermen when property is owned in a life estate.

A life estate is a form of ownership in which one or more parties — the “life tenants” — have the right to occupy or rent out a property during their lives and other parties — the “remaindermen” — automatically take possession when the life tenant (or the survivor of life tenants) dies. All have a current ownership interest, but the life tenant has control. The life tenant also has the obligation to maintain the property.

What Happened

In this case, in 2004 Leonard and Helen Lodigiani deeded their home to their children James, Anne and Nina, reserving a life estate for themselves. Leonard and Helen continued to live in the house along with another son, John, who had developmental disabilities. Helen died in 2007.

In 2011, Nina moved in with Leonard and John to assist in caring for them. This turned out to be a problem because Nina is a hoarder. James tried to get Nina to clean up the mess and in 2014 arranged for a dumpster to be brought to the property. By 2016 the sanitation department of the town in which they lived issued several violation notices. In 2018, Leonard and John moved out of the property and Leonard obtained a no trespass order against Nina.

In 2019, James and Anne filed for “partition.” This is the right of any owner of property to seek a court order that it be sold and the proceeds divvied up according to each owner’s interest in the property. This is something of a risk in naming a child or someone else as a co-owner or remainderman of property, since they can always seek its partition.

The partition petition was granted and the property sold in 2020. Unfortunately, Leonard died the day after the sale.

The Case

At issue in this case was how the sale proceeds should be distributed. James and Anne sought to charge Nina for the damage she caused to the property as well as for their expenses in getting it cleaned up.

The probate court rejected their claim, reasoning that “Leonard, as the life tenant, had the exclusive right to possession at all relevant times, and so was ‘the sole person [with] the duty to preserve and protect the property for the benefit of the parties.'”

The judge stated that James and Anne had a valid claim against Leonard’s estate for his failure to maintain the property but not against Nina, even though she was the one who caused the damage. Further, any damages James and Anne might seek could not be awarded in the partition proceeding. Instead, they would have to file a claim against Leonard’s estate.

The Appeal

On appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reasons that “the judge viewed the scope of her discretion too narrowly.” It notes that while a life tenant may be held liable for “waste” of property, there’s an exception if the remainderman themself caused the damage. This “reflects the commonsense notion that remaindermen (or reversioners) who injure the premises by their own acts cannot then hold the life tenant liable for the damage.”

Further, “Nina had the duty as a remainderman not to impair the ownership interests of her coremaindermen James and Anne.”

Accordingly, the Appeals Court remanded the case back to the probate court to determine the exact amount of the sale proceeds Nina should contribute to James and Anne, as well as whether they are entitled to attorneys fees and costs for pursuing the litigation.

Conclusion

This case is very instructive regarding the duties co-owners of real estate owe one another, whether they are life tenants, remaindermen, joint owners or tenants in common. They cannot harm the interests of other owners and can be held liable if they do so.

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