Definition of life estate
life estate (plural life estates)
- (law) An estate in land which is owned by a party only for the duration of the life of that party, and for which ownership will revert to another upon the death of that party.
A life estate is a concept used in common law and statutory law to designate 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. 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 Bob conveyed to Ashley for the life of Ashley, and Ashley conveys a life estate to another person, Brenda, for Brenda's life [an embedded life estate], then Brenda's life estate interest would last only until whoever dies first, Brenda or Ashley. Then Brenda's interest conveys to the remainder interest or reverts to the original grantee. Once Ashley 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 "to A until B dies."
Another limitation on a life estate is the legal doctrine of waste, which prohibits life tenants from damaging or devaluing the land, as their ownership is technically only temporary.
Validity of a life estate
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.
Source: Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.