In common law and statutory law, a life estate is the ownership of land for the duration of a person's life.
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.
Financial and physical responsibility falls to the life tenant under the legal doctrine of waste, 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.
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 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.
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.
The intestacy laws of certain American states, such as Arkansas, Delaware, and Rhode Island limit the surviving spouse's rights (inheritance) to the deceased spouse's real estate to a life estate.