Brokaw v Fairchild

US Property Law

Brokaw v Fairchild
Image: ‘Lower Fifth Avenue’ by Frederick Childe Hassam

Life tenancy and title to a freehold estate are two distinct modes of occupation, however the latter is absolute in its effects, while the former includes limitations and covenants where directed by the transferor. On this occasion, a sizeable dwelling in an enviable part of New York was subject to possible demolition plans when the relatives of the new owner challenged it within the courts.

In 1886, the deceased had purchased land in Manhattan for the purposes of building his own private residence. Having designed the home to his own specifications, the property was bequeathed to one of his sons in a will drafted in 1907, which read:

“By the Fourth clause of my Last Will and Testament, dated and executed on the 20th day of April, 1907, upon the death or remarriage of my wife I gave and devised my residence, situated at the northeasterly corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in the City of New York, to my son, George Tuttle Brokaw…”

However the deceased then further explained that:

“I now hereby modify that provision of my Will and after the death or remarriage of my wife I give and devise my said residence to my son George Tuttle Brokaw for and during the term of his natural life…”

Which in effect reduced the powers granted to the now claimant, to those answerable to the principles of life tenancy as prescribed by state law. Here, it was held that any alteration of a property resided in under inheritance as a life tenant, must be proven as non-injurious to the value and aesthetic appearance of the property when passed to those due under the terms of the original testator.

The issue in hand was one where the claimant had proposed the demolition and rebuilding of the home so as to enjoy increased revenue from the leasing of multiple apartments over that of a single, albeit ornately furnished home. In fierce objection, a number of siblings sought reference to the terms contained within their own terms of inheritance, which while providing clear stipulations as to individual use, were not applicable to the terms in which the claimant had acquired use of this particular home.

Therefore by use of existing precedent, the New York Supreme Court drew attention to Winship v Pitts, in which Chancellor Walworth remarked:

“I have no hesitation in saying, that by the law of this state, as now understood, it is not waste for the tenant to erect a new edifice upon the demised premises; provided it can be done without destroying or materially injuring the buildings or other improvements already existing thereon. I admit he has no right to pull down valuable buildings, or to make improvements or alterations which will materially and permanently change the nature of the property, so as to render it impossible for him to restore the same premises, substantially, at the expiration of the term.”

And Kidd v Dennison, in which the court held that:

“[I]f the tenant materially changes the nature and character of the buildings, it is waste, although the value of the property should be enhanced by the alteration. The tenant has no authority to assume the right of judging what may be an improvement to the inheritance. He must confine himself to the conditions of his lease.”

So with an appreciation of not only the financial opportunities but the limitations of the tenancy and wishes of the testator, the Court held that under no circumstances did the claimant have any express rights to enjoy the benefits of his inheritance beyond those powers conferred, and that to do otherwise was abjectly unlawful and subject to obvious penalty.

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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