A life estate is a type of estate that is measured by the lifespan of the life tenant. Once the life tenant dies (or some pre-specified condition occurs), possession of the estate reverts back to another individual.
Life tenants have both rights and duties regarding the life estate property. Those with specific life estate questions should contact an attorney.
A life tenant has the right to use and profit from use of the life estate property. However, he does not have complete ownership, in the sense that if he chooses, he can destroy the value of the property.
The life tenant cannot act in a way that injures the interests of the person who will receive the estate next. Should he do so, the next in line (who holds what is known as a remainder or reversionary interest) may sue the life tenant for damages, or sue to enjoin him from taking the damaging action.
The instrument that grants the life tenant a life estate may forbid the life tenant from transferring his life interest.
If it does not, the life tenant will be free to transfer a portion of his life estate to another.
However, the recipient will receive a life estate that is still measured by the life of the original life tenant. This is known as a life estate per autre vie (meaning, measured by the life of another.) When the original tenant dies, even if the recipient of the transfer is still alive, the estate will still revert to the holder of the remainder or reversion.
A life tenant commits affirmative waste, also known as voluntary waste, when he consumes natural resources present on the life estate property. Life tenants can't commit affirmative waste except in certain situations: when the use of the property prior to life tenancy was for exploitation of such resources (for instance, property containing a long-producing oil well); when the life tenant uses only such amounts as are necessary to maintain the land; when the instrument granting the life state expressly allows the tenant to exploit resources; and when the only suitable use of the land is the exploitation of resources (for instance, if the life estate grant is for a mine.)
A life tenant commits ameliorative waste when he acts in a way that increases the economic value of the property. Historically, a life tenant could be held liable even for ameliorative waste, but modern law generally allows a life tenant to do anything that benefits the property, even if that benefit requires incidental damage to the property (for instance, demolishing an old building to build a new one.) However, the ameliorative waste must not decrease the market value of the remainder or reversionary interest, and the holder of the remainder or reversionary interest must not object to the action.
Permissive waste occurs when the tenant does not upkeep the land, and the property falls into physical or financial disrepair. A tenant has a duty not to commit permissive waste. He must preserve the land and any structures upon it in a state of decent repair, and must pay interest on any mortgage on the land (the remainder or reversion holder must usually pay the principal.) The life tenant will also usually be liable for taxes or assessments for public improvements. However, the life tenant has no duty to improve the property, nor is he legally obligated to insure it.