Interpretation & Construction

Rights of Life Tenant

Steger v. Muenster Drilling Co., Inc., 134 S.W.3d 359 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2003, pet. denied).


Husband’s will granted Wife a life estate in all his property including extensive powers such as the authority to manage, control, and lease the property for all purposes. Wife entered into mineral leases with secondary terms extending for as long as oil or gas is produced in paying quantities. Wife died in 1960. One of the remainder beneficiaries received a secondary life estate. This remainder beneficiary also entered into mineral leases extending for as long as paying quantities of oil or gas are produced. In a similar manner to the devise to Wife, Husband’s will granted this remainder beneficiary the power to enter into leases. This beneficiary died in 1993. In 1996, Child, the sole surviving remainder beneficiary, questioned the continued validity of some of these leases. Child asserts that Husband’s will did not authorize Wife and the remainder beneficiary to execute oil and gas leases extending beyond their lifetimes.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the express terms of Husband’s will granted Wife and the remainder beneficiary the right to enter into these long-term leases. The court studied the language of Husband’s will, especially the phrases “for all purposes” and “whatever nature” which followed the grants to the life tenants of the power to lease the property. Construing the language of Husband’s will according to the ordinary meaning of the words used, the court held that Husband’s will unambiguously authorized Wife and the remainder beneficiary to execute any type of oil and gas lease including leases that extended beyond their lifetimes. The court rejected Child’s argument that because Wife and the remainder beneficiary could enter into leases only while they were alive, they could not create a lease which would remain effective after their deaths.

Moral: Regardless of the clarity of language a testator uses in a will, the will may still be attacked on the ground that it should not be given effect as it is written. Any additional guidance which the testator provides in the will could reduce such claims. In this case, for example, Husband could have added the phrase, “including leases which extend beyond the life tenant’s lifetime.”