The answer is: it depends. The statute governing partition actions, M.G.L. c. 241, authorizes the holder of a life estate to file a petition for partition. For example, when two siblings hold concurrent life estates, their interest can be partitioned from each other. Partition is also available when a widow holds a life estate in an undivided half interest in the property, and other heirs own the other half of the property in fee.
However, in Charder v. First Church of Christ Scientist (decided December 30, 2021), the Land Court recently clarified that partition is unavailable to certain life estate holders. The Court found that the petitioner, who held a sole life estate interest and had sole possession of the property, could not pursue a partition against the entity holding a future interest (called a remainderman).
The Court reasoned that such limitation is consistent with the purpose of partition. An examination of the history of partition in Massachusetts’ common law along with the statutes governing partition reveals that the object of a partition proceeding is to avoid the inconveniences resulting from joint ownership and/or common possession. Because a sole life tenant does not have to contend with anyone having a concurrent possessory interest and, thus, cannot complain about any co-ownership related issue, her interest cannot be partitioned from a remainderman. Likewise, a remainderman cannot pursue a petition for partition against a life estate holder.
Partition is generally accomplished by selling the property. While the Court dismissed the petition for partition for the reasons explained above, it pointed out that another course of action, not involving any partition, is available to a life estate holder in sole possession, in that she may seek a sale of the property. Under G.L. c. 183, §49, a life estate holder may petition the Probate Court to appoint a trustee, authorize him to sell the property and hold the proceeds “if such sale and conveyance appears to the [probate] court to be necessary and expedient.” Unlike a partition proceeding, there is no distribution in kind of the proceeds of such sale. Instead, the trustee “hold, invest or apply the proceeds …for the benefit of the persons who would have been entitled to the land if such sale…had not been made.” Case law applying G.L. c. 183, §49 is very sparse, but it is a statutory mechanism to keep in mind when dealing with a sole life estate holder who is seeking to sell the property.