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What Is a Life Estate?

A life estate is a present interest in property, usually real property. The unique feature of a life estate is that the interest in the property will end upon the death of a specified person, usually the person receiving the property. Upon death, the property will go to a future interest, either the original owner or a designated third party.

How Is a Life Estate Conveyed or Created?

A life estate is typically conveyed through an agreement between the parties.  A key element to the creation of a life estate is the granting of a right of possession in the property. A life estate is created by a deed that gives the property to the person "for life" and also states what would happen to the property once the life tenant dies. The life tenant will then have the property for the duration of their life and may sell or transfer the interest property, but only for the duration of his or her life. Once the life tenant dies, the interest in land will transfer to the person stated in the original deed who has future interest.

What Types of Life Estates Exist?

Life estates are separated into three subdivisions:

  1. Life Estate for the Life of the Grantee: This type of life estate gives the person receiving the life estate all the estate property rights for the remainder of their life.
  2. Life Estate Pur Autre Vie: This life estate takes its name from a French phrase, meaning "for the life of another." The holder of this life estate will have all the estate property rights for the remainder of someone else's life.
  3. Life Estate Upon a Condition: This type of life estate has a condition that would cause the life estate holder to lose their interest if the condition occurred before the death of the life estate holder. If the condition never occurs, then the life estate holder would still lose their interest in the property upon their death, just like any other life estate holder.

What Are the Rights and Duties of Life Estate Holders?

A life estate holder has several rights and duties associated with the possession of a life estate. Below are only some of the common rights and duties:

Can I Make Improvements on the Property?

The problem with life tenants is that even though they own the property, then do not own the property forever because the future interest in vested in someone else and upon death of the life tenant the property will go to someone else. Therefore, the life tenant cannot do anything that will devalue or change the characteristic of the property without consent of the person who has future interest.

This concept is called duty not to commit "waste". In other words, it means that the life tenant cannot do anything that will harm or ruin the property. However, there are some exceptions:

  1. If the land was already being exploited in a certain manner before life tenant took over, the life tenant may continue the activity in the manner it's being used
  2. The life tenant may make necessary repairs and conduct regular maintenance operations on the property if its necessary.
  3. The life tenant may make significant changes that include new developments and improvements with the permission of future interest holders.

May I Sell or Lease My Life Estate?

Yes, a life estate can typically be sold and leased. In the case of a sale, however, the buyer will now have a life estate pur autre vie (See above) in the life of the seller with the interest ending upon the death of the seller. In the case of a lease, the person leasing the property will lose the lease upon the death of the life estate holder and will not be given the same notice protections of a standard lease holder. A life tenant can only transfer or sell the interest that they have in the property and cannot transfer anything that will interfere with the remaindermen's interest.

May I Give My Life Estate to Another by Will?

No, a life estate may not be willed. When a life estate ends, the property will either go back to the original owner or a third party. Therefore, neither the life estate holder or his/her heirs have a future interest in the property once the life estate ends. The life tenant can only sale or transfer the interest they have on the property which is interest for the duration of their life only. 

Do I Need an Estate or Property Lawyer?

Life estates are used to divide the property into present and future interests. If you are the owner of property and would like to divide your property into time interests, then an estate or property lawyer would best be able to construct a conveyance to fit your needs. Conversely, if you are presently the owner of a life estate interest, then seeking out an attorney would help you best understand your rights and obligations in the property interest.

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Last Modified: 02-05-2015 02:30 PM PST

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