A (Very) Basic Introduction to Estates in Land

Posted on Nov 30, 2021 by Kevin Vance

As with most legal concepts, the question of real estate ownership is not simply a yes or no proposition – like cakes and onions, the answer has layers.  Specifically, the various rights accompanying real property ownership can vary in kind, degree, and duration, and include – but are most certainly not limited to – the right to possess, to control, to enjoy, to exclude others, and to dispose of or alienate through sale or abandonment.  Property law professors often colloquially referred to these rights as the “bundle of sticks,” where each “stick” metaphorically represents a right of ownership.  The nature of your ownership interest (i.e., your “estate” in the land) is very much defined by which sticks you hold.  By way of example, please consider the following:

Fee Simple Estate

To hold a fee simple estate is to have absolute ownership of the property, and in fact, is also known as holding “fee simple absolute.”  This is the full “bundle of sticks,” as the saying goes, and entitles the holder to all rights and privileges available under the law.  Fee simple title remains subject to any legal or private restrictions that may be present (think zoning ordinances and HOA restrictions, respectively), but is otherwise unlimited.  Case in point: because fee simple title is not limited in duration, the owner is free to pass the property to their heirs after their death.

Life Estate

A life estate by contrast, while it includes many of the rights and privileges available to a fee simple holder, limits ownership to the duration of some person’s lifetime, also known as the “life tenant”.  This is typically the person holding the estate (i.e.: the person entitled to hold the property during the measuring life), though it is possible to base it on the life of another.  Also, though the life tenant can exercise most of the rights of ownership – such as possession, enjoyment, etc. – those rights end when the life estate ends.  Further, a traditional life tenant can only possess, lease, sell, or mortgage their ownership interest in the property.

Compared to the traditional life estate, the so-called “Enhanced Life Estate” is becoming a popular option because, among other things, the Life Tenant retains full ownership of the property and can therefore transfer or mortgage the entire ownership interest in the property.

In further contrast to the traditional life estate, consider the Homestead interest which is, in essence, a legal life estate.   The Homestead interest is created by operation of law for the benefit of a family, for so long as the family lives in the house.  Of particular significance in Texas real estate law, the Homestead interest offers fairly substantial protection against creditors, though it remains subordinate to real estate taxes and to some claims secured by the property.

Considering that “property ownership” is likely as old a concept as “law,” it should be clear that this article is meant as the barest of introductions.  Should you be interested in additional information, I recommend beginning with Georgetown Law Library’s introductory resources at https://guides.ll.georgetown.edu/treatise-finders/realproperty, and expanding your research from there.