September 12, 2003
LIFE ESTATE OWNERS-UPKEEP OF PROPERTY
By: George Coppolo, Chief Attorney
You asked whether property owners have any legal remedies when the owner of a life estate does not keep the property in good repair.
A life estate is an interest in real property with a duration measured by the life of a person or group of people. When that person or people die, the life estate is extinguished and the property automatically goes to the person or people who have a remainder interest in the property.
The law provides some remedies for people with a remainder interest who are in such a situation. Anyone who holds a life estate and damages the property or fails to keep it in good repair is liable for damages unless he was explicitly authorized by the will or the other document that created the life estate to do the acts complained of. Also, the court may order the holder of the life estate to make repairs, or to do or stop doing certain activities relating to the property's condition. The law also gives a lien to anyone who has a vested remainder interest in the property who paid for necessary repairs or improvements to the property. As noted above, a person has a remainder interest if he will receive an estate after a particular estate carved out of it has expired. This law gives the probate court for the district in which the property is located the authority to determine the amount of money necessarily expended and to order the sale of so much of the property as is necessary to repay the sum that has been advanced.
REMEDIES AVAILABLE FOR DAMAGES TO OR LACK OF REPAIR TO PROPERTY
CGS § 52-563 makes the holder of a life estate liable if he commits waste upon the property that is subject to the life estate unless his actions are explicitly authorized by the will or other document that created the life estate. The law sometimes refers to those who hold the life estate as the life tenant. In construing this statute, our Supreme Court has held that a life tenant has the duty to make ordinary repairs (1) required to remedy presently existing conditions of substantial disrepair that may have injured the property substantially or permanently, and (2) necessary to prevent the property from declining to the point where its deterioration, and the resulting injuring to the inheritance, is substantial or permanent (Zauner v. Berwer, 220 Conn. 176 (1991)).
A life tenant is bound to keep the land and the structures comprising the life estate in as good repair as they were when he took them, except for ordinary and natural wear and tear (Ferguson v. Rochford, 84 Conn. 202 (1911); Zauner v. Berwer, 220 Conn. 176 (1991)). Our court has said that discharging this duty includes preventative ordinary repairs: “If a new roof is needed, the life tenant is bound to put it on; if paint wears off, he is bound to repaint.” (Ferguson v. Rochford at 205).
The Connecticut Supreme Court has held that this statute authorizes the court to order the life tenant to (1) make repairs; (2) engage in, or cease to engage in, certain other activities; and (3) pay damages (Zauner v. Berwer, at 191).
LIEN FOR REPAIRS AND IMPROVEMENTS UPON REAL PROPERTY
The law also gives a lien for money expended to anyone who (1) has a remainder interest in real property in which another person has a life interest and (2) has paid any money for necessary repairs or improvements to that real property (CGS § 45-334). This law gives the probate court for the district in which the property is situated, upon written application of the person who expended money, the authority to determine the amount of the lien and, if necessary, order the sale of as much of the property to repay the sum owed.
If this lien is considered inadequate security, the court can take other action. One alternative is to retain the life tenancy but to secure the preservation and maintenance of the property by placing the responsibility for its general upkeep and ordinary expenses in the hands of a trustee who will administer it separately from a separate fund of money. If this alternative is acceptable, it may be possible to avoid the life tenancy altogether by placing title to the property in trust (Ralph Felson, Probate Litigation in Connecticut 2nd § 2: 6).