What is a Life Estate?

Alexis W.

A life estate is a limited form of property ownership in which the interest in a property is split. A person who has a life estate is entitled to enjoy full use of the property during his lifetime, but does not have the right to confer the property upon his death.

The interest in a property is split during a life estate.
The interest in a property is split during a life estate.

The simplest form of property ownership is a fee simple absolute. A fee simple absolute means that the owner has a 100 percent undivided interest in the property. He can use it, sell or convey it, and leave it to someone else in his will.

A person holding a life estate will only have partial interest in a property.
A person holding a life estate will only have partial interest in a property.

With a life estate, however, the person holding the life estate has only a partial interest in a property. That interest allows him to use the property in any way he sees fit, for the duration of his life. The owner of a life estate is also called a life tenant and he has full ownership benefits for as long as he is alive.

As a full owner, the life tenant can rent the property in order to enjoy income from it. He can live on the property, or build and improve upon it. He can also sell the property if he so desires, to anyone whom he chooses.

The term of the life estate, however, is measured by the life of the person who was granted the original interest. In other words, only the life tenant's life is used to measure the term. This is true even if he rents the property to another person or conveys his interest in the property to someone else.

The fact that the life tenant's interest ends upon his death means that if he sells the property to someone else, their interest ends immediately upon the life tenant's death. When a life estate is created, the documents thus must stipulate who the property will go to upon the life tenant's death. This person, who is vested with an interest in the property immediately after the life tenant dies, is called the remainderman.

When a life tenant dies, the remainderman's interest in the property immediately becomes active. This is true even if the life tenant attempted to will the property to someone else, or has sold the property. A life tenant is unable to grant a greater interest than he himself has in the property, so any attempt on the part of a life tenant to will the property to an heir is invalid.

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Discussion Comments


My father died six years ago. He left my stepmom the life estate of his house, but upon my stepmom's death, or if she does not want to occupy the house anymore, it goes to my sister, me and my niece and nephew. Over the last six years, my sister (executrix) has put in over $20,000 on taxes, maintenance and insurance on house. This was insurance left to me and my sister that has been spent on the house. She is saying anything she has spent will be taken out of my and my niece and nephew's share when house is sold. Can she do that?

What I understood is that the house is my stepmom's and she does not pay a penny on it.


If a house is later built on life estate land, does the live tenant then have the house also?


I understand the pros and cons of having a life estate. However, what if the person holding the life estate is married, has a family, and then dies. Does that mean that his wife and kids are going to be homeless? Is that possible?

If it was written that this particular individual had a life estate until he dies and then it goes to another member of the family, that would mean that whoever was living there while the deceased was living there has to move out? I'm just curious because I had never heard of this. I can see the good in it. However, it could also be bad for whomever was living with the life estate tenant.


@Bhutan - I know what you mean. Things like this can also happen when the parents remarry and develop a blended family. In cases like this it is common for the spouse to inherit the home, but sometimes that is done as a life estate and when the spouse dies, the home goes to a different family member.

Sometimes people have difficulty with life estates because they think that they have full rights to the home and they don’t. I think that anytime there is money involved some people lose their minds and lose sight of what is really important.


I was watching a television show the other day that was discussing a case about a father that had a very complicated life estate plan. He transferred his home to one of his daughters so that she could live in the home her entire life, but then wanted the home to be transferred to his other two grandchildren from his other two daughters upon his daughter’s death.

The problem here was that the sister that inherited the home wanted to sell the home, but was unable to due to the life estate. The father really wanted the property to stay in the family as a legacy but it really made everyone bicker. It was almost like this home was a curse and not a blessing.

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