A life tenant is an individual who holds a property interest known as a life estate. Life tenants typically may use the estate property during the duration of their life estate, but may not take any action that will damage the property for future owners. Those with specific questions about life estates or life tenant rights should contact a real estate professional.
A life estate is a specific type of real estate interest that lasts only so long as a specified party is alive. The typical life estate is measured by the lifespan of the life tenant. However, in a specialized life estate known as a life estate pur autre vie, the life tenant's right to the property may last only as long as another person's life, and the life tenant may lose his rights to the property before his own death. A life estate does not arise by default; it must be created in a real estate conveyance with clear language that limits the user's rights to someone's lifetime, such as "To John as long as he shall live."
Once the death of the life tenant (or another party, in the case of a life estate pur autre view) ends the life estate, the property will go back to another party, usually someone named in the same conveyance that created the life estate. This party, the "remainderman," holds a real interest in the property known as a reversion. Because the property will revert to the remainderman at some point, this future interest gives the remainderman the right to keep the life tenant from doing actual damage to the property during his time of possession.
Damage to Property
Life tenants must keep the life estate property in good condition. Among other duties, the life tenant must maintain the property, as well as pay property taxes and interest on any mortgage of the property. Typically, the remainderman is responsible for mortgage principal. Traditionally, life tenants did not have the right to remove any of the resources on the property, such as timber or ore, unless the instrument that created the life estate specifically mentioned such rights. But many states' laws have recognized such rights if the property has always been used for such resource exploitation, if there's no other use for the property, or if the removal is necessary to keep the land maintained. A life tenant has no right to sell or give away the property to another party.
Improving the Property
Unless the life estate's creator explicitly conditioned the estate on the life tenant's improvement of the property, the life tenant has no legal obligation to make the property grow in value or produce profit. The law allows the life tenant to profit from the property, but the life tenant may be liable to the remainderman if the life tenant takes the profitable action over the remainderman's objections. Even if the property improvement is necessary, the law may still hold the life tenant liable if the improvement in any way decreases the remainderman's property interest.
- “Property (6th Edition);" Krier, James E. and Michael H. Schill and Gregory S. Alexander and Jesse Dukeminier; 2006
- Lawyers.com: Life Estates
- Montana State University Extension: Life Estate: A Useful Estate Planning Tool
Erika Johansen is a lifelong writer with a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and editorial experience in scholastic publication. She has written articles for various websites.