It's easy to assume, if not told otherwise, that estate in land is simply the land owned in an overall estate. That's an understandable mistake, but the actual definition is more complicated -- particularly because you don’t need to currently, or ever, own a piece of real property in order to have an interest in it. And, if you do own it, an estate in land may determine how long you do and under what stipulations.
Definition of estate in land
An estate in land is the interest that a person has in a piece of real property, often such that they are or will become the owner of it, but not always. They may simply have the right to use it. A person’s estate in land defines the nature and extent of their interest in that specific piece of land.
How is it different from ownership?
You can have an estate in land if you’re not an owner of a piece of property, but you are going to become an owner or have some sort of interest in it in the future.
One commonly seen scenario for this is in estate planning, when multiple beneficiaries of a will are all going to receive partial interests in a piece of property. Sometimes the will testator (writer) intends that the property will actually be split in portions for each beneficiary. Other times, they want their beneficiaries to each be able to use the land in different ways. Regardless, this creates a situation where people have an interest in a piece of real property without actually owning it.
You can also have an estate in land if you live in a structure built on a piece of land, and you don’t own the parcel of land itself, but you’ve bought the structure.
The best example of this is condominium ownership. Although condo owners may not own a single bit of actual land, they do have the air rights to their specific unit, and they have purchased an interest in the land below it, and their estate in land determines that they have ownership rights to the structure and shared access -- and possibly ownership -- of the actual land on which it’s built.
What types of rights does an estate in land encompass?
An estate in land can be quite significant in the depth and scope of rights it defines. It determines people’s rights to enter a piece of property, use it for a certain purpose, live on it, claim ownership of it, and transfer ownership to another party.
Main types of estate in land
There are four main types of estate in land, and several subtypes for each main category.
From our overview of leasehold vs freehold interests, a freehold estate is one that an individual owns exclusively. Subtypes include:
- Fee simple.
- Fee simple defeasible estate
- Fee simple determinable
- Life estate
An individual may possess a piece of real property but not own it. If this sounds like a long-term lease, that’s no accident; these leases are included in this type. However, so are some co-op and condominium developments.
And, to further complicate things, some planned developments may provide one type of interest to the parcel of land a home is on but another type for the shared amenities. Finding out you only have a leasehold estate when you thought you had partial ownership interest in common spaces can come as a nasty shock when it’s time to get a property appraised or think about selling it.
- Net lease.
- Gross lease.
- Estate from period to period.
- Estate for years.
- Estate at will.
- Estate at sufferance.
This is the setup when multiple parties either possess or own the same piece of land. In long-term lease situations or condo-dwelling situations, this sharing of an interest can work with relatively little friction, but in situations created by a death or divorce, it can get messy.
- Joint tenancy.
- Tenancy in common.
- Tenancy by the entirety.
- Community property.
This type of interest is for individuals who may neither own nor possess a piece of real property. In some cases they expect to eventually; in others, they simply have the rights to use it.
- Incorporeal interests (including easements).
- Future interests.
Is an easement an estate in land?
Yes, an easement is one of the most commonly occurring equitable estates. It gives someone -- or multiple people, or the public at large -- the right to enter and use a piece of private property without owning it, regardless what the owner might say.
If the neighbor has the right to cross your property on the way to a public recreation space or can stop you from building or growing anything tall enough to block their view, then they have an easement or multiple easements, as well as estate in land over your property, though they likely will never own it or have any rights beyond those limited ones.
How do you obtain the specifics of your potential estate in land?
If you think you have some sort of shared interest in a piece of real property, the best place to start is at the office of the recorder of deeds. There, you can research plat maps, information on easements, and more. You can also run a title search; for greater efficiency, go through a title company instead of attempting to sort through land records yourself.
If you live in a building development and are trying to understand what your interests in the land are, you’ll want to review the community covenants, HOA (homeowners association) disclosure summary, planned unit development rider (AKA condo rider, PUD rider), and other documentation from the development’s homeowner association.
If someone has named you as the beneficiary in their will, you may need to get a real estate attorney to help you understand exactly what your inheritance is and what interests it gives you in any land real estate.
Is someone else’s estate in land ever relevant to your interests?
Yes, someone else’s estate in land can certainly be relevant to you, if you're sharing interest in a piece of real property. It can also be unpleasantly relevant if you own a piece of property they have an equitable interest in; that is, they don’t own it and never will, but regardless they have some sort of rights to use it. And, if you’re thinking of buying a piece of real property, you should definitely find out if heirs, holdover tenants or other parties may claim an interest--because if so, you or the next eventual owner may end up sharing it with them in ways that you never expected.
Examples of people whose estate in land may affect you even though you’re not looking at potentially sharing ownership or possession:
- Your neighbors, if an easement allows them to access and use your land.
- Your HOA board, especially if the association actually owns the land your condo is built on.
- Long-term leaseholders at a building you’re considering buying.
- The ex-spouse of the owner of a building you’re looking to buy, who's claiming partial ownership of the building under community property laws.
- You’re trying to buy a piece of real property from a motivated seller whose father passed. Turns out, the other siblings also have an interest according to the will.
In truth, there are myriad situations where someone’s estate in land can affect you even if they will never fully own or possess the land you have interest in.
Estate in land encompasses more than "Who owns this land."
It also is very integral to determining how much property tax is owed, and what rights you actually are buying in a potential real estate transaction. Consider every party who claims an interest in a piece of land from the perspective of whether they can actually affect your ability to do what you want to do on the piece of property you own or possess. Perhaps research will show that they can’t. Perhaps they don’t want to. Or, maybe they have enough of an interest to change the course of your entire plan for your piece of property. No matter what, it’s better to investigate and understand than to be surprised.