Estates and Ownership Interests Defined
The law recognizes different sorts of interests, called estates, in real property. The type of estate is generally determined by the language of the deed, lease, bill of sale, will, land grant, etc., through which the estate was acquired. Estates are distinguished by the varying property rights that vest in each, and that determine the duration and transferability of the various estates. A party enjoying an estate is called a "tenant."
Some important types of estates in land include:
Fee simple: An estate of indefinite duration, that can be freely transferred. The most common and perhaps most absolute type of estate, under which the tenant enjoys the greatest discretion over the disposition of the property.
Conditional Fee simple: An estate lasting forever as long as one or more conditions stipulated by the deed's grantor does not occur. If such a condition does occur, the property reverts to the grantor, or a remainder interest is passed on to a third party.
Fee tail: An estate which, upon the death of the tenant, is transferred to his or her heirs.
Life estate: An estate lasting for the natural life of the grantee, called a "life tenant." If a life estate can be sold, a sale does not change its duration, which is limited by the natural life of the original grantee.
A life estate pur autre vie is held by one person for the natural life of another person. Such an estate may arise if the original life tenant sells her life estate to another, or if the life estate is originally granted pur autre vie.
Leasehold: An estate of limited duration, as set out in a contract, called a lease, between the party granted the leasehold, called the lessee, and another party, called the lessor, having a longer lived estate in the property. For example, an apartment-dweller with a one year lease has a leasehold estate in her apartment. Lessees typically agree to pay a stated rent to the lessor.
A tenant enjoying an undivided estate in some property after the termination of some estate of limited duration, is said to have a "future interest." Two important types of future interests are:
Reversion: A reversion arises when a tenant grants an estate of lesser maximum duration than his own. Ownership of the land returns to the original tenant when the grantee's estate expires. The original tenant's future interest is a reversion.
Remainder: A remainder arises when a tenant with a fee simple grants someone a life estate or conditional fee simple, and specifies a third party to whom the land goes when the life estate ends or the condition occurs. The third party is said to have a remainder. The third party may have a legal right to limit the life tenant's use of the land.
Estates may be held jointly as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or as tenants in common. The difference in these two types of joint ownership of an estate in land is basically the inheritability of the estate and the shares of interest that each tenant owns.
In a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship deed, or JTWROS, the death of one tenant means that the surviving tenant(s) become the sole owner(s) of the estate. Nothing passes to the heirs of the deceased tenant. In some jurisdictions, the specific words "with right of survivorship" must be used, or the tenancy will assumed to be tenants in common without rights of survivorship. The co-owners always take a JTWROS deed in equal shares, so each tenant must own an equal share of the property regardless of his/her contribution to purchase price. If the property is someday sold or subdivided, the proceeds must be distributed equally with no credits given for any excess than any one co-owner may have contributed to purchase the property.
The death of a co-owner of a tenants in common (TIC) deed will have a heritable portion of the estate in proportion to his ownership interest which is presumed to be equal among all tenants unless otherwise stated in the transfer deed. However, if TIC property is sold or subdivided, in some States, Provinces, etc., a credit can be automatically made for unequal contributions to the purchase price (unlike a partition of a JTWROS deed).
Real property may be owned jointly with several tenants, through devices such as the condominium, housing cooperative, and building cooperative.
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