Last week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in a case (Boyle v Weiss, SJC-10933) that came to it via the certification of a question by the Bankruptcy Court. The question was whether the owner of a beneficial interest in a trust who lives in the trust property acquire an estate of homestead in the property? Based on the law prior to the March 16, 2011 amendment (which was the law governing the homestead in question), the SJC held that the beneficiary could not acquire a homestead under those circumstances.
The relevant homestead statute (since amended) allowed (1) an owner or (2) one who occupies "by lease or otherwise" to acquire a homestead. The court noted that the same statute defined "owner" as "a sole owner, a joint tenant, a tenant by the entirety, or a tenant in common." The plaintiff here fell into none of these categories. The second status - "by lease or otherwise" - was last interpreted in a case decided during the Civil War (Thurston v Maddocks) which held that a homestead could not be acquired by one holds owns only an equitable interest in the property. The SJC today relied on that holding to reject the "by lease or otherwise" language as a type of "catch-all" for new homesteads.
In a series of footnotes, the SJC made it clear that while the March 16, 2011 amendment does specifically allow homesteads to be acquired by owners of a life estate and trustees, the homestead in question would still not be valid because it was executed by the beneficiary and not by the trustee as is required by the new law. The court also stated that since the homestead was invalid when it was first recorded, it could not be revived by the 2011 amendment which said old homesteads continue in full force under the terms of the new law.