Generally, when a grantor transfers land to a grantee, the grantee receives the entire right and title to the property, without limitations. Sometimes, however, the grantor chooses to limit the grantee’s right to the use and enjoyment of the land by creating a life estate. A life estate is an estate in land that ends when a named person dies. It is used primarily for estate planning as a device to allow successive ownership of the land.
Types of Life Estates
There are two types of life estates. The first is for the life of the grantee. The second is for the life of another. The two life estates are divided according to whose life measures the duration of the estate. The life estate that is measured by the grantee’s life terminates on his or her death. For example, if Dad transfers land to Sonny-boy for his life, Sonny-boy’s life is the measuring life, and he is the life tenant. Sonny-boy’s life estate ends when he dies. At that time, the land either reverts to Dad, his estate if he has also died, or to another named person.
The life estate that is measured by the life of another ends at that person’s death. Following the example, if Dad transfers the land to Sonny-boy for the life of Dad’s daughter, Cutie Pie, Cutie Pie is the measuring life. Sonny-boy has the right to use and enjoy the property during the lifetime of Cutie Pie, but Sonny-boy’s life estate terminates upon Cutie Pie’s death. Those persons who are entitled to the land after the life estate ends are called the remaindermen.
Rights of a Life Tenant
The general rule is that a grantor or transferor can only convey the rights that he or she enjoys. Although a life tenant only has the right to use and enjoy the property during a specific time frame, he or she can transfer that right to another person. However, the grantee or transferee of the life tenant only receives the life tenant’s estate. Neither the life estate nor its duration is changed by the transfer or conveyance.
If a life tenant does not take care of the land or, by neglect or intentional conduct, creates a situation that causes the land to permanently decrease in value, the life tenant wastes the estate. Waste occurs when the life tenant actively destroys the structures or vegetation or allows the land or its structures to become run down. Another kind of waste occurs when the life tenant substantially changes the life estate by tearing down the structures on the land while increasing the land’s value. The remaindermen can bring suit to recover damages or enjoin the life tenant’s conduct.