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Lange v. Sullivan

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

May 8, 2019

MATTHEW LANGE ET AL.
v.
BETTY JO SULLIVAN ET AL.

          Session April 9, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Carroll County No. 2016-CV-161 Carma Dennis McGee, Chancellor

         Appellee's father, decedent, died testate. Decedent's will devised real property to Appellee in fee simple but also gave Appellants the right to use the house and curtilage for so long as Appellants' did not abandon the property for a period of ninety consecutive days. The trial court held that decedent's will gave Appellants a "license" to use the property-a holding that the parties do not appeal. On Appellee's complaint for declaratory judgment, the trial court ordered Appellants to pay the mortgage debt, real estate taxes, maintenance, and insurance on the property. Appellants appeal raising the sole question of whether they should be responsible for the mortgage on the property. We hold that, as licensees, Appellants cannot be charged with the mortgage debt. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order as to its holding that Appellants are responsible for the mortgage payments. The trial court's order is otherwise affirmed.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Reversed in Part, Affirmed in Part, and Remanded

          Terry J. Leonard, Camden, Tennessee, for the appellants, Betty Jo Sullivan, and Jonathan Sullivan.

          Dewayne D. Maddox, III, Huntingdon, Tennessee, for the appellee, Matthew Lange.

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John W. McClarty and Arnold B. Goldin, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE

         I. Background

         John Wesley Lange ("Decedent") died testate on July 13, 2014. Decedent's son, Appellee Matthew Lange, was named Executor in the Decedent's will. At the time of his death, Decedent had a paramour, Betty Jo Sullivan. Ms. Sullivan and her son, Jonathan Sullivan, are the Appellants. Decedent's will was admitted to probate in Carroll County on July 17, 2014. As is relevant to this appeal, the will provides:

SIXTH: I hereby specifically give, devise, and bequeath my real property located at 14905 Highway 70, Huntingdon, Tennessee . . . to my son, Matthew Lange, to be his subject to the rights of Betty Jo Sullivan and Jonathan Sullivan to reside in the home on my property until such time as they abandon that right by failing to reside in the same for a period of 90 days consecutive or they voluntarily relinquish said rights.

         At the time of Decedent's death, the Highway 70 property (the "Property") was encumbered by a mortgage of approximately $27, 000.00. There is no proof that either Appellant was a party to the mortgage contract.

         On January 9, 2015, Appellants filed a complaint for will construction against Appellee seeking interpretation/clarification of paragraph six of Decedent's will, supra.. The trial court heard the complaint on April 8, 2016. By order of June 7, 2016, the trial court found

that the parties, by and through their respective attorneys, announced that the [Appellants] retain the right to live in and occupy the house, driveway and curtilage [of the Property] . . . subject to conditions subsequent, [1]namely, until such [] time as they abandon that right by failing to ...

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