When someone receives a life estate in a piece of property, that person (known as the life tenant) has the right to use the property for the duration of his own life. Some life estates are known as "life estate pur autre vie," meaning that the life estate's duration is not measured by the lifespan of the life tenant himself, but by the lifespan of another individual. The language of the life estate deed will make this clear. Either way, once the relevant lifespan ends, the property legally returns to another individual, known as the remainderman, who was named in the life estate deed. The remainderman may be the individual who granted the tenant his life estate in the first place, or she may be a third party.
Life Estate Assignment
Every state, including West Virginia, allows the life tenant to assign his life estate, effectively transferring the usage rights to the property to another party. However, assigning the life estate to another party doesn't change the life estate's duration; the property will still revert to the remainderman when the original life tenant (or other individual whose lifespan is named in the deed) dies. For instance, if a man transfers his life estate to his sister, and he dies five days later, the sister will only have had use of the property for five days before it legally returns to the remainderman.
Selling Life Estates
The law also permits a life tenant to sell his interest to another party. However, it can be difficult to value a life estate. West Virginia Code Section 43-2-2 describes the mathematical method for valuation: one should multiply the value of the life estate property by 5.6%, then multiply it by the appropriate value in the Section 43-2-2 table. The product is the gross value of the life estate. Both sold and assigned life estates are still subject to the same duration rules described above.
The life tenant's rights to the property are not unlimited. In a typical life estate, the life tenant is responsible for paying taxes on the property and may also need to perform certain necessary maintenance to keep the property value from declining. The life tenant can't do anything that will damage the remainderman's interest in the property. Such damaging actions are known legally as "waste." When the life tenant sells or assigns his interest, the buyer or assignee is also forbidden from waste in her dealings with the property.