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Life Estate: Definition, Example, Advantages & Remainderman

Instructor: Nathan Osborn

Nate Osborn is a real estate attorney in Denver, Colorado. His practice is focused on real estate litigation and real estate transactions. He graduated with B.A. from Texas Christian University in 2003. He received his J.D. from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 2007. He currenlty a licensed in Colorado and Nebraska. He frequently lectures on real estate related issues across the country.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the life estate interest in real property and discover how to identify when someone has a life estate interest in land, and the advantages/disadvantages of the life estate interest.

Types of Estates in Real Property

When a person conveys land, the land does not actually change hands because land is too big to physically transfer. To help deal with this issue, the United States (and many other countries) have established a legal system whereby when a person sells land it is the interest in the land or the estate that is actually conveyed.

There are different types of estates recognized in property law, including:

  • Freehold estates made up of the fee simple absolute estate, the fee simple determinable estate, the fee simple subject to a condition subsequent estate, the fee tail estate, and the life estate.
  • Nonfreehold estates made up of, among other things, the leasehold estate for months, the leasehold estate for years, the leasehold estate at will, and the leasehold estate at sufferance.

Identifying the type of estate interest owned by a person involves analyzing the nature and extent of ownership the person has in the land. Here, we will explore the life estate.

The Life Estate

A life estate is an estate interest in land that lasts for the life of the life tenant. The holder of a life estate has a full right to possess the property during their life. A life tenant can sell their interest to a third-party with the caveat that the third-party buyer of this life estate interest would only own the property until the death of the original life tenant. A life tenant pays all property costs, applicable taxes, and insurance while in possession of the property. The holder of a life estate cannot leave the property to anyone in a will because their interest does not survive upon death, and also cannot commit waste or any activity that would keep the remainderman from receiving the property in an optimum condition.

A common example of a life estate is when a parent transfers a property to a child for the life of the child (or visa versa). A deed that grants a life estate interest in property typically sets forth that the subject property is being conveyed for the life of a certain person and then identifies the next person in line to own the property after the life estate holder dies. Common deed language used to convey a life estate is: to John Smith for life, then to Jane Smith.

Remainderman

A remainderman is the person who inherits the property after the death of a life estate holder. In our prior above example, to John Smith for life, then to Jane Smith, Jane Smith would be the remainderman. Interestingly, a remainderman can sell his or her interest in the property, but the person who purchases a remainderman interest only has a right to possess the property after the death of the life estate holder. If the remainderman dies while the life estate tenant is still alive, then the remainderman's heirs would own his or her interest in the property.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Life Estate

There are a couple of advantages of a life estate. One is that the property transfers outside of probate upon death of the life tenant, which simplifies administration of the estate. Also, a life estate grant can be a good estate planning mechanism to help provide a house to a loved one. The holder of a life estate is also entitled to any rents deriving from a property if the life estate tenant does not want to live there.

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