The Life Estate

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Terms:


Life estate
An interest in land that lasts only as long as the life of a specific person.

Life Estate Pur Autre Vie:
A life estate that is measured by any life other than the life of the holder of the life estate.

Rule Against Restraints on Alienation:
Any condition accompanying a conveyance that restricts the right of the new property holder to sell or transfer his or her property to a third party is disfavored and will likely be void.


A life estate is an interest in land whose duration is measured by a human life. The holder has the right to possess the property as long as he or she lives. At the death of the holder, the property reverts back to the owner.

Most often, as in the life estate discusses in the last example the “measuring life” will be that of the recipient. However, this need not be the case. A life estate can be measured by any life in existence at the time that the interest is created. A life estate that is not measured by the life of the holder is known as a life estate pur autre vie (“for the life of another”). If no life is specifically mentioned in the creation of the life estate, the measuring life is presumed to be the life of the recipient. For example:

  1. John gives an acre of land “to Mary for life.” Mary has a life estate. She has an interest in the land that lasts as long as she lives and the interest will end when she dies.
  2. John gives an acre of land “to Mary for the life of Chris.” Mary has a life estate pur autre vie, which is measured by Chris’ life. She has an interest in the land that lasts as long as Chris lives and the interest will end when Chris dies. Note that if Mary dies before Chris, her heirs will take over the land for as long as Chris continues to live.

As with the defeasible fees, a life estate can be sold or transferred to a third party. However, since a holder cannot transfer more than he or she owns, the buyer or recipient will have to surrender the land upon the death of the person who was the measuring life for the original life estate. For example:

John gives an acre of land “to Mary for life.” Mary then sells her interest in the property to Chris. Chris can only keep the land until the death of Mary. Upon the death of Mary, the property reverts back to John. Note that if Chris dies, his interest does not terminate, because his interest is equivalent to Mary’s interest before she sold it. If Chris were to die during Mary’s life, the property would go to Chris’ heirs until Mary died, at which point it would go back to John or his heirs. In effect, Chris has a life estate pur autre vie, which is measured by Mary’s life.

It is possible to create a life estate in more than one person. For example:

John gives an acre of land “to Mary’s children for life”. In this case, any children that Mary has will be entitled to a life estate in the land. The land will go back to John when the last of Mary’s children dies.

A life estate can be limited or made conditional in the same way a fee simple can. For example:

  1. Fred gives an acre of land “to Barney for life, so long as the land is used to grow corn.” In this case, Barney has a determinable life estate (the life estate’s equivalent of the fee simple determinable that we discussed in the last subchapter). If Barney uses the land to grow corn, the life estate will end when Barney dies. If, at any point, he stops using the land to grow corn, the life estate will terminate and the land will go back to Fred.
  2. Fred gives an acre of land “to Barney for life, but if he ever uses the land for something other than growing corn, then Fred has a right of re-entry.” In this case, Barney has a life estate subject to a condition subsequent. If Barney uses the land to grow corn, the life estate will end when he dies. If he uses the land for any other purpose, the life estate will end if Fred decides to re-enter the land and take it back. If Fred decides not to reenter the land and take it back then the life estate will end when Barney dies.
  3. Fred gives an acre of land “to Barney for life, so long as he never uses the land for something other than growing corn, and the remainder to Betty.” In this case Barney has a life estate subject to an executory interest. If Barney uses the land to grow corn, the life estate will end when Barney dies. If Barney uses the land for any other purpose, his life estate automatically ends and Betty gets the land. However, Betty’s interest in the land is only a life estate pur autre vie with Barney’s life as the measuring life. It will end when Barney dies (because the entire interest that Fred transferred lasts only as long as Barney lives.)

The creation of a life estate is accomplished by the language “to Recipient for life” or, if it is to be a life estate pur autre vie, “to recipient for the life of (another person).” The holder of the life estate is called the “life tenant.” If the property is to return to the original owner after the death of the life tenant, the original owner holds a “reversion”. Recall that the remaining interest after a fee simple determinable was called a “possibility of reverter” because it was uncertain whether it would ever materialize. However, a life estate is certain to end. Thus, it is simply called a reversion. If the property is to pass to a third party, then the third party’s interest is called a “remainder”. (It is not a reversion because the third party never had it in the first place, so it cannot “revert” to him or her.) For example:

  1. Starr transfers a parcel to “Clinton for life.” Clinton has a life estate and Starr has a reversion.
  2. Starr transfers a parcel to “Clinton for life and then to Lewinski.” Clinton has a life estate and Lewinski has a remainder.

See King v. Scoggin, 92 N.C. 99 (1885).

As you can see, the general rule is that land owners can generally do whatever they want with their land. They can give any portion of it to anyone and they can divide their land physically or chronologically. One major exception to this freedom of action is the Rule Against Restraints on Alienation.

This rule states that any condition accompanying a conveyance that restricts the right of the new property holder to sell or transfer his or her property to a third party will be disfavored and will, very often, be void. If such a condition is found to be void as a restraint on alienation, it will simply be ignored. For Example:

Fred gives an acre of land “to Barney but if he ever tries to sell it, then to Wilma”. In this case Fred has conditioned Barney’s interest in the land on his not trying to sell it. This is a restraint on alienation that will certainly be considered void. Since the condition will be ignored, Barney will have a fee simple absolute.

Recall that the primary reason for the fact that the fee tail is hardly in existence is because most jurisdictions would consider the restraining nature of the fee tail to be an illegal restraint on alienation, and therefore void.

However, partial restraints on alienation may be allowed. So, an agreement among condominium owners to only sell to people who agree to abide by the condominium group’s rules will be allowed. Also, rights of first refusal are usually valid. Thus, a transfer can be made with the condition that before the transferee re-sells the property, he must first offer to sell it back to the transferor. However, restraints that prohibit or restrict the transfer of land to members of certain racial or religious groups are not enforceable because they are against public policy.



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