Life estate

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In common law and statutory law, a life estate is the ownership of land for the duration of a person's life. In legal terms it is an estate in real property that ends at death when ownership of the property may revert to the original owner, or it may pass to another person. The owner of a life estate is called a "life tenant".

Although the ownership of a life estate is of limited duration because it ends at the death of the person who is the "measuring life", the owner has the right to enjoy the benefits of ownership of the property, including income derived from rent or other uses of the property, during his or her possession. Because a life estate ceases to exist at the death of the measuring person's life, this temporary ownership agreement cannot be left to heirs (intestate) or devisees (testate), and the life estate cannot normally be inherited (but see Life Estate pur autre vie, and Estate for Term of years). At death, the property involved in a life estate typically falls into the ownership of the remainderman named in the life estate agreement.

A land owner of an estate cannot give a "greater interest" in the estate than he or she owns. That is, a life estate owner cannot give complete and indefinite ownership (fee simple) to another person because the life tenant's ownership in the property ends when the person who is the measuring life dies. For instance, if Ashley conveyed to Bob for the life of Bob, and Bob conveys a life estate to another person, Charlie, for Charlie's life [an embedded life estate], then Charlie's life estate interest would last only until whoever dies first, Charlie or Bob. Then Charlie's interest conveys to the remainder interest or reverts to the original grantee. Once Bob dies, however, whoever possesses the land loses it (with the land likely reverting to its original grantor). This is a life estate pur autre vie, or the life of another. Such a life estate can also be conveyed originally, such as "A conveys X to B until A dies".

Another limitation on a life estate is the legal doctrine of waste, which prohibits life tenants from damaging or devaluing the land, as the seller's ownership is technically only temporary and a diminution or destruction of the thing sold, the consideration received is a material or complete breach of the contract.

Selling property while keeping a life estate is commonly known in France as "viager" where it is used more often than elsewhere, most famously in the case of Jeanne Calment the longest lived human ever recorded.

Uses of a life estate[edit]

In the United States, a life estate is typically used as a tool of an estate planning. A life estate can avoid probate and ensure that an intended heir will receive title to real property. For example, Al owns a home and desires that Bill inherit it after Al's death. Al can effectuate that desire by transferring title to the home to Bill and retaining a life estate in the home. Al keeps a life estate and Bill receives a vested fee simple remainder. As soon as Al dies, the life estate interest merges with Bill's remainder, and Bill has a fee simple title. Such transfer of interests make unnecessary the use of a will and eliminates the need to probate the asset. The disadvantage to the grantor, however, is that the grant to the remainderman is irrevocable without the remainderman's consent. "Beneficiary deeds" have been statutorily created in some states to address this issue.

It is less well known that the intestacy laws of certain American states, such as Arkansas, Delaware, and Rhode Island, still limit the surviving spouse's rights to the deceased spouse's real estate to a life estate (as shown by the programs linked to the state names). Louisiana, applying the civil law, employs a similar mechanism in successions called usufruct.

Duration of a life estate[edit]

Life estates are measured either by the life of the property recipient, or by the life of some other person; these latter are called life estates pur autre vie (Law French, "for the life of another"). A life estate pur autre vie is most commonly created in one of two circumstances.

  • First, when the owner of property conveys his interest in that property to another person, for the life of a third person. For example if A conveys land to B during the life of C, then B owns the land for as long as C lives; if B dies before C, B's heirs will inherit the land, and will continue to own it for as long as C lives.
  • Second, if A conveys land to C for life, C can then sell the life estate to B. Again, B and B's heirs will own the land for as long as C lives.
  • In either scenario, once C dies, the ownership of the land will revert to A. If A has died, ownership will revert to A's heirs. The right to succeed to ownership of the property upon the expiration of the life estate is called a remainder.

Validity of a life estate[edit]

The early common law did not recognize a life estate in personal property, but such interests were cognizable in equity. Thus, although life estates in real estate are still created today, the life estate is more commonly used in trust instruments, typically in an attempt to minimize the effect of the inheritance tax or other taxes on transfers of wealth.

The law of England and Wales no longer recognises the life estate at law in relation to land; instead the holder of legal title to the land (whether the freehold fee simple or a lease) will hold that land on trust first for the life tenant and then for the remainderman.

See also[edit]