common law In law, common law (also known as judicial precedent, judge-made law, or case law) is the body of law created by judges and similar quasi-judicial tribunals by virtue of being stated in written opinions."The common law is not a brooding omnipresen ...
statutory law Statutory law or statute law is written law passed by a body of legislature. This is opposed to oral or customary law; or regulatory law promulgated by the executive or common law of the judiciary. Statutes may originate with national, state le ...
, a life estate (or life tenancy) is the ownership of immovable property for the duration of a person's life. In legal terms, it is an estate in
real property In English common law, real property, real estate, immovable property or, solely in the US and Canada, realty, is land which is the property of some person and all structures (also called improvements or fixtures) integrated with or affi ...
that ends at death when ownership of the property may revert to the original owner, or it may pass to another person. The owner of a life estate is called a "life tenant". In the combined jurisdiction of England and Wales since 1925 a freehold estate intended to be 'held' as a life interest takes effect only as an interest enjoyed in equity, specifically as an interest in possession trust. The other type of land ownership is leasehold and although most long leases are for a period of between 99 and 999 years 'leases for life' will be interpreted in often unpredictable ways as either as a licence or a lease.


The ownership of a life estate is of limited duration because it ends at the death of a person. Its owner is the life tenant (typically also the 'measuring life') and it carries with it right to enjoy certain benefits of ownership of the property, chiefly income derived from rent or other uses of the property and the right of occupation, during his or her possession. Because a life estate ceases to exist at the death of the measuring person's life, the life tenant, a temporary owner, may short-term let but cannot sell, give or bequeath the property indefinitely (including assuming it could pass to
heir Inheritance is the practice of receiving private property, titles, debts, entitlements, privileges, rights, and obligations upon the death of an individual. The rules of inheritance differ among societies and have changed over time. Officiall ...
s ( intestate)) or creating a purported document leaving it to
devisee A will or testament is a legal document that expresses a person's (testator) wishes as to how their property ( estate) is to be distributed after their death and as to which person (executor) is to manage the property until its final distributio ...
s (
testate Intestacy is the condition of the estate of a person who dies without having in force a valid will or other binding declaration. Alternatively this may also apply where a will or declaration has been made, but only applies to part of the estat ...
). A life estate '' pur autre vie'' (
Law French Law French ( nrf, Louai Français, enm, Lawe Frensch) is an archaic language originally based on Old Norman and Anglo-Norman, but increasingly influenced by Parisian French and, later, English. It was used in the law courts of England, be ...
, "for the life of another") is held for the rest of the lifetime of a person who does not hold the estate, known as the cestui que vie (Law French, "the person who lives"). This form of life estate arises where a life tenant has disposed of the property, assuming such a disposal does not trigger any special forfeiture under the life interest instrument. It also arises where the grantor chooses to make the measuring life that of someone other than the life tenant's life. A life estate ''pur autre vie'' is most commonly created in one of two circumstances. *First, when the owner of property conveys his interest in that property to another person, for the life of a third person. For example, if A conveys land to B during the life of C, then B owns the land for as long as C lives; if B dies before C, B's heirs will inherit the land, and will continue to own it for as long as C lives. *Second, if A conveys land to C for life, C can then sell the life estate to B. Again, B and B's heirs will own the land for as long as C lives. *In either scenario, once C dies, the ownership of the land will revert to A. If A has died, ownership will revert to A's heirs. The right to succeed to ownership of the property upon the expiration of the life estate is called a ''reversion''. However, the remainder interest granted to a third party (A to B for life, with a remainder interest in C), is called "remainder". A clear distinction should be made with an estate for (a) term of years, interpreted as lease or licence. At death, assuming no mis-dealings to certain innocent purchasers, the property involved in a life estate falls into the ownership of the remainderman ( ''remaindermen'') or reverts to its grantor (all of which confusingly can be called 'reversions' and 'reversioners'). There is a small market for reversions in real estate, which necessitates a buyer to carry out enhanced documentary due diligence and physical checks. 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 In English law, a fee simple or fee simple absolute is an estate in land, a form of freehold ownership. A "fee" is a vested, inheritable, present possessory interest in land. A "fee simple" is real property held without limit of time (i.e., pe ...
) 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 Ashley conveyed to Bob for the life of Bob, and Bob conveys a life estate to another person, Charlie, for Charlie's life n embedded life estate then Charlie's life estate interest would last only until Charlie or Bob dies. Charlie's life interest or ''pur autre vie'' interest (interest for the life of another, whichever has applied) and most often the remaining rights of ownership in the property (the 'reversionary interest') devolve to the persons under the terms of the will/rules of intestacy/declaration of trust/trust deed (UK) or will/rules of intestacy/'grant or deed of life interest' (or similar) (U.S.) in remainder or revert to the original grantee, depending on terms of Ashley. Such a life estate in the U.S. can also be conveyed for the life of the grantor, such as "A conveys X to B until A dies" and in the UK by trust transferring upon trust or assigning rather than conveying X. If a life tenant purports to transfer the underlying 'reversionary' interest, which a life tenant never has, this constitutes an actionable breach of trust for damages and may constitute criminal
fraud In law, fraud is intentional deception to secure unfair or unlawful gain, or to deprive a victim of a legal right. Fraud can violate civil law (e.g., a fraud victim may sue the fraud perpetrator to avoid the fraud or recover monetary compens ...
however may not entitle the ultimate reversioner (or substituted beneficiaries) to be able to obtain a court declaration that the property is their own if that property is in the hands of an innocent purchaser for value without notice (
bona fide purchaser A ''bona fide'' purchaser (BFP)referred to more completely as a ''bona fide'' purchaser for value without notice is a term used predominantly in common law jurisdictions in the law of real property and personal property to refer to an innocent ...
). Financial and physical responsibility falls to the life tenant under the legal doctrine of
waste Waste (or wastes) are unwanted or unusable materials. Waste is any substance discarded after primary use, or is worthless, defective and of no use. A by-product, by contrast is a joint product of relatively minor economic value. A waste pro ...
, which prohibits life tenants from damaging or devaluing the asset. In short, as the life tenant's ownership is temporary, failing to maintain or reasonably protect the asset resulting in its diminution in value, or indeed, destruction constitutes a cause of action for the reversioner. A further limitation is the rule against perpetuities in many states and countries which prohibits long-running pre-19th-century style successions of life tenancies and may result in the premature and compensation-entitling termination of such successive life interests. In England and Wales this is fixed at one lifetime, or 80 years whichever is longer. Selling property while keeping a life estate is commonly known in France as "viager" where it is used more often than elsewhere, most famously in the case of
Jeanne Calment Jeanne Louise Calment (; 21 February 1875 – 4 August 1997) was a French supercentenarian and the oldest human whose age is documented, with a lifespan of 122 years and 164 days. Her longevity attracted media attention and medical studies o ...
, the longest lived human ever recorded.

Uses of a life estate

In the United States, a life estate is typically used as a tool of an estate planning. A life estate can avoid
probate Probate is the judicial process whereby a will is "proved" in a court of law and accepted as a valid public document that is the true last testament of the deceased, or whereby the estate is settled according to the laws of intestacy in the sta ...
and ensure that an intended heir will receive title to real property. For example, Al owns a home and desires that Bill inherit it after Al's death. Al can effectuate that desire by transferring title to the home to Bill and retaining a life estate in the home. Al keeps a life estate and Bill receives a vested fee simple remainder. As soon as Al dies, the life estate interest merges with Bill's remainder, and Bill has a fee simple title. An advantage of such a transfer is that it makes the use of a will unnecessary and eliminates the need to probate the asset. A disadvantage is the small risk of a fraud on the part of beneficiary Bill, if he could easily show in a particular jurisdiction an unfettered fee simple, he could sell the estate prematurely to an innocent purchaser such as when Al is on vacation. A second disadvantage to the grantor is that provision for any remainderman (or men) (party C) is irrevocable without the remainderman's consent. "Beneficiary deeds" have been statutorily created in some states to address this issue. The intestacy laws of certain American states, such a
Rhode Island
limit the surviving spouse's rights (inheritance) to the deceased spouse's real estate to a life estate.
Louisiana Louisiana , group=pronunciation (French: ''La Louisiane'') is a state in the Deep South and South Central regions of the United States. It is the 20th-smallest by area and the 25th most populous of the 50 U.S. states. Louisiana is border ...
, applying civil law, has a similar default provision in intestate successions called a usufruct, which is only over community property and ends with the earlier of death or remarriage. Some American states allow for an enhanced life estate deed, in which the grantor retains the ability to transfer to property to a third party without the consent of the remainderman. With this tool, a grantor can use a life estate to avoid probate without giving up the right to sell the real property. The intestacy laws of England and Wales from 1 October 2014 provide for £250,000 (or the whole non-joint estate if less) and 50% of any excess to the spouse, remainder to adult children. This abolished the remaining 50% being enjoyed as a life interest which had applied from the 1920s. The surviving spouse (and rarely, others) benefit from survivorship of any joint property. The arrangement in the first paragraph would in the UK be interpreted as an interest in possession trust and is usually avoided as for inheritance tax is considered 'reservation of benefit' requiring fully backdated sums of annual income tax on whatever market rent ought to have been paid to the legal owner, in England and Wales for continued enjoyment of the asset.

Valuation of a life estate

A valuation is typically derived from the present value of the net benefit derived by the life (or lives) over the residual term of the interest. Where these valuations are based on a single life, reference can be made to tables such as life tenant factors by gender and age. These factors are prepared taking into account life expectancies and prevailing interest rates for a specific jurisdiction or purpose. An example is a table of life tenancy factors that is used to determine the proportion of a property attributable to a particular life tenant for any stamp duty payable upon its transfer. More complicated examples can involve impaired or joint lives and specialist advice is usually required such as that provided by an
actuary An actuary is a business professional who deals with the measurement and management of risk and uncertainty. The name of the corresponding field is actuarial science. These risks can affect both sides of the balance sheet and require asset man ...

Duration of a life estate

Life estates are measured either by the life of the property recipient (''pur sa vie''), or by the life of some other person (''pur autre vie'').

Validity of a life estate

At law and in equity (US)

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 An inheritance tax is a tax paid by a person who inherits money or property of a person who has died, whereas an estate tax is a levy on the estate (money and property) of a person who has died. International tax law distinguishes between an e ...
or other taxes on transfers of wealth. A prospective reduction in tax for the creator ('settlor') often follows if the settlor has parted with all current and
future interest In property law and real estate, a future interest is a legal right to property ownership that does not include the right to present possession or enjoyment of the property. Future interests are created on the formation of a defeasible estate ...
. However many tax codes transfer the burden of estate taxes to the holder of the interest in possession (life tenant) and may treat that person or the remaindermen as owning a second/surplus property.Trust and Capital Gains Tax
UK tax authority (HMRC). Retrieved 2015-03-12.
Formally where a system is derived from English law, the law divides into common law and equitable law — at their cores the formal title and further overarching rules (especially as to trust interests such as this). The latter cannot usually defeat a claim to title from a
bona fide purchaser A ''bona fide'' purchaser (BFP)referred to more completely as a ''bona fide'' purchaser for value without notice is a term used predominantly in common law jurisdictions in the law of real property and personal property to refer to an innocent ...
for value without notice, as such a person has reasonably researched the ownership position based upon the legal title (common law) position. As the owner of a legal interest, in the US, further embedded or legal interests consistent with the form of ownership can be created from life estates. Accordingly, due to their potential versatility and complexity in the U.S., common law seldom recognizes a life estate in personal property (tangible items and livestock other than land including buildings) but such interests are recognized at equity where of adequate form — statutes and regulations impose formalities on the creation of lifetime interests in personalty.

At equity (England and Wales)

Since 1925 registered titles in England and Wales preferably should, but mostly do not, reveal an 'interest for life', 'life estate' or 'life tenancy' in the form of a restriction on the register. Instead the registered legal owner may hold various degrees of leasehold or freehold interest, but usually absolute interest. This provides a reliable 'mirror of title' which can only be subjected to a very few overriding interests. A maxim of equity is 'Where equities are equal, the law will prevail'. Equity defers to the position at law of a ''bona fide'' purchaser for value without notice (including any tenant or mortgagee), and as 'equity will not suffer a wrong to be without remedy,' where there is such, will be limited to '' in personam'' remedies against the settlor or life tenant where it confirms life estates, upon trust, to have been validly created: #for the life tenant(s); and thereafter #for remainderman, remaindermen or the reversionary settlor. Life tenants are never recorded as proprietors at the Land Registry as they are temporary, equitable owners and are not entitled to have the a transfer of the land effected. If the proprietor has died, executors of the will, administrators or beneficiaries all have the right to apply for the standard form A restriction and are encouraged by the official guidance to do so. Practice Guide 24, published 13 October 2003.
Land Registry. Retrieved 2015-03-12
If a lease is for more than seven years, the lease must be registered. Most long leases are for a period of between 99 and 999 years, and 'leases for life' will be interpreted either as a licence or a lease.

Torrens title jurisdictions

In most
Torrens Title Torrens title is a land registration and land transfer system, in which a state creates and maintains a register of land holdings, which serves as the conclusive evidence (termed " indefeasibility") of title of the person recorded on the regist ...
jurisdiction Jurisdiction (from Latin 'law' + 'declaration') is the legal term for the legal authority granted to a legal entity to enact justice. In federations like the United States, areas of jurisdiction apply to local, state, and federal levels. Jur ...
s a life tenant has, like in UK and US, the right to possession and enjoyment of the
property Property is a system of rights that gives people legal control of valuable things, and also refers to the valuable things themselves. Depending on the nature of the property, an owner of property may have the right to consume, alter, share, ...
, but once the tenant dies the property will return to the remainderman. The main difference is that, the life estate will be registered by the Registrar general of that jurisdiction, and will appear on the registered title. This has the effect of making them one of the 9 types of recognised interest in land, and one of the four that confirm possession. The registration process in Torrens title systems usually confers indefeasibility on the life estate. A holder of a life estate can alienate his rights, but they will still expire on his death, regardless of whom he alienates it to. At that point, that buyer will have to forfeit the land.

Life tenancy investments

It is becoming increasingly popular for private investors to place funds into a life tenancy investment. This type of
investment Investment is the dedication of money to purchase of an asset to attain an increase in value over a period of time. Investment requires a sacrifice of some present asset, such as time, money, or effort. In finance, the purpose of investing is ...
is being offered as an alternative to traditional buy to let and is becoming increasingly popular in the United Kingdom with over £30 million worth of Life Tenancies being delivered in 2018.



See also

* Interest in possession trust *
Life annuity A life annuity is an annuity, or series of payments at fixed intervals, paid while the purchaser (or annuitant) is alive. The majority of life annuities are insurance products sold or issued by life insurance companies however substantial case ...
* Reverse mortgage *
Tontine A tontine () is an investment linked to a living person which provides an income for as long as that person is alive. Such schemes originated as plans for governments to raise capital in the 17th century and became relatively widespread in the 18 ...
Real property law Wills and trusts Land tenure