Title to property comes in many forms, including a life estate, sometimes referred to as a life tenancy. When the owner of a property wishes to give another person ownership for the life of that person, or the life of another person, he or she may give him or her a life tenancy. Under this type of ownership, the tenant has ownership of the property until his or her death, at which time the property will revert to the original owner.
The laws regarding a life estate are generally very similar from one jurisdiction to the next. Although a life tenancy does not convey complete title to the property, as it ends upon the death of the tenant, the tenant does have all the rights of an owner during his or her life. For example, a life tenant may make improvements to the property, enjoy income made from the property, and may even convey or sell his or her interest in the property. A life tenant may not, however, convey, give, or sell more of an interest than he or she has in the property. In reality, this means that a life tenant may sell the right to ownership of the property until the death of the life tenant only.
One of the biggest restrictions on a life tenancy is that, in most cases, a life tenancy cannot be inherited or devised to heirs upon the death of the tenant. The reason for this is that, under the terms of a life estate, the tenant's interest in the property terminates upon his or her death, at which point the property reverts back to the original owner or may pass on to a remainderman. A remainderman is someone to whom the original owner of the property conveys the property to when the life estate terminates. In the absence of a designated remainderman, the property reverts back to the original owner, or to his or her heirs, if deceased.
A life tenancy may also use the life of a third person as the measuring life for the duration of the estate. For example, a husband could give his son a life estate in property for the life of his wife. In that case, the son will have the use and enjoyment of the property until his mother dies, at which point the property will revert either to the husband or to a remainderman, if one was appointed.