On Shelley’s Case

Originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

On Shelley’s Case


The Rule in Murray’s Case. The Rule in Rolanda’s Case. Who remembers those? Probably just Murray and Rolanda, their lawyers and a few close friends. But everyone remembers the Rule in Shelley’s Case. This is because the rule is vitally important to every lawyer until five minutes after completing the bar exam.

Who was Shelley and what made her so special? Next month, top property lawyers from around the world will gather in Hawaii to tackle this ancient riddle at the First International Conference on The Rule in Shelley’s Case and Jet-Ski Championships. For three days, these experts will present scholarly papers, engage in profound debate and do cannonballs off the highdive board.

You may qualify as such an expert. Take the following classic essay exam to find out:

 A conveys Whiteacre to “B for life, then to C for life, then to B’s heirs” (Practice tip: The Rule in Shelley’s Case applies only to property called Whiteacre or Blackacre.) B, the life estate grantee and remainderwoman, is involved with C, an aging rock star who turns out to be a fertile octogenarian.

B gets pregnant and gives birth to little D, a delightful toddler when he is sedated. (C, the artist formerly known as Q, was a cad who already had nine children: H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O and P.)

You may be asking yourself, “Where does Shelley fit into all this?” It’s a good question, but questions aren’t allowed during a test.

A gets jealous and enfeoffs C with a backhoe. C is rushed to the ER by EMTs, gets CPR from and RN and an IV from an MD, but it’s too late. C is DOA.

If things weren’t bad enough, C’s HMO refuses to pay for his MRI. A, guilt-ridden, turns to drugs (you guessed it: LSD) and shoots himself with a BB gun. B, unable to find suitable daycare for little D, loses her scholarship at UCLA, flunks her LSAT and is hounded by her CD club.

C was last spotted by CNN hiding somewhere in the mountains of the former USSR.

Analyze D’s rights to Whiteacre. Don’t look at the answer until you have fully worked through the problem.

Answer: What did we just say about looking?

Real Answer: Under the Rule in Shelley’s Case, D gets nothing because if a life estate is conveyed to a grantee and a remainder to the grantee’s heirs, both the present estate and remainder are taken by the grantee (or maybe it’s the grantor, we always get those messed up).

If you’re still wondering about Shelley, you’ll have to attend the conference. Don’t forget to bring lots of legal pads and sunscreen.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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