John Walker, the testator, gave to his wife "all of my real and personal property", but added that "should any portion of my estate still remain in the hands of my said wife at the time of her decease undisposed of by her the remainder shall be divided as follows . . .". When the wife died, people stepped forward seeking some of the money from the original testator's will – alleging that the value of her estate represented the "undisposed" part of his property that remained when his wife died.
- Can you transfer property absolutely to someone else, and also give instructions on how it will be treated upon the death of that person?
Middleton, writing for a unanimous court, says that cases such as this fall into two classes: those where an absolute interest in the land has been transferred, and therefore all other desires for later use of the land are repugnant; and those where all that is originally transferred is a life estate and therefore the gifts after the death of the person holding the life estate are valid. He says that this case is an example of the former. This was an absolute transfer of land, as the testator's dominant intention was to benefit his widow, not the nephews. Therefore the statements concerning the gift of the land upon the wife's death are meaningless.
Middleton also states that there can be cases where a testator transfers a life estate to someone, and also gives them the power to sell that property during their lifetime. This power must be given specifically. If this is the case, any desires about future gifts are meaningless if the property has been sold.
- An absolute transfer of land (fee simple) cannot be accompanied by directions on how to deal with the land upon the death of the receiver; however, if all that is transferred is a life estate then these types of gifts are valid.
- It is possible to transfer a life estate with the power to sell the property (must be explicit), and if this is the case then the gifts will be void if the property is sold.