A life tenant is an individual who has a legal right to a piece of land for the duration of his life. The life tenant generally has an unlimited right to do as he wishes with that property during his life, although the lease or tenancy agreement may limit those rights. Upon his death, the life tenancy expires.
The person who creates the tenancy usually owns the property absolutely, in a form of property ownership called a fee simple absolute. This means he has an unqualified right to do anything he wants with the property, including sell it or use it. When an individual is granted a life tenancy, also called a life estate, the person granting that interest generally must name a remainderman. The remainderman is the person who will receive the property upon the death of the life tenant.
The life tenant may use the property during the course of his life, so he enjoys the legal right of possession. In many cases, he may also sell the property if he wishes or lease it to someone else. A life tenant, however, cannot transfer a greater interest in the property than he himself possesses. Thus, if a life tenant sells the property, the person who buys it must be aware that it expires upon the death of the tenant, even if the buyer is still alive.
Setting up a life tenancy can be a useful tool. For example, a man may remarry and his new wife may live in his home. He may wish to ensure that she always has the right to live in that house, even upon his death. Despite his wish to allow her to remain in the home for the duration of her life, however, he may wish to ensure that the home will pass to his children upon her death, as opposed to allowing her to will it to whomever she wished.
In such a situation, by setting up a life tenancy, he could ensure that she had an unqualified right to keep the house while she was alive, but that the home would pass to the beneficiaries he selected upon his death. He would simply name his child or children as the remaindermen when creating the life tenancy. This would protect not only his children's interests, but also the interest of the wife who would be assured that she could not lose her rights to the property during her lifetime.