Before my spouse died he/she set up his/her affairs so that I can live in our home as long as I live, but when I die, my stepchild will own it. What does that mean, and who is responsible for repairs?

First of all, it is important to understand that what you have is called a life estate and what your stepson has is a remainder. Generally, a person holding a life estate in a particular piece of property has the right to possession of that property for as long as he/she lives. The life tenant can use, occupy, and enjoy the property while he/she is alive. The very idea of a life estate is that you have present and free enjoyment of the property. Your stepchild is the remainderman, which means that he will own the property after your life estate ends. Conflicts may arise between life tenants and remaindermen because both people have valid but distinct interests in the property. 

As a life tenant, it is your responsibility to preserve the property and care for it by keeping your stepchild’s interest in mind. You cannot do anything which causes permanent injury to the property. You can enjoy the land and use it as much as you want–that is your right as a life tenant. But you are responsible for making sure that no damage occurs that would affect your stepchild’s interest. For example, you may cut timber for your own firewood or make minor repairs to the property, but you are not permitted to timber the entire property or begin selling firewood for profit.  

The life tenant is also responsible for ordinary repairs necessary to preserve the property. Ordinary repairs are generally ones that do not exceed the fair rental value of the property. You are obligated to keep the property in as good a condition as it was when you received the life estate, minus ordinary wear and tear. If the roof begins leaking, you will probably have to patch it, but you probably do not have to go buy a new roof. As a life tenant, you are not responsible for extraordinary or unusual repairs. You will not be held responsible for the repairs if there is a flood or a tornado, for example.  

You must also be very careful in making any major improvements to the property. You will be expected to keep the house in more or less the same condition as it was when you received the life estate; therefore, what may seem like an improvement to you may not be an improvement to the remainderman. Also, if you do make improvements, generally you cannot charge them to the remainderman. A few exceptions apply to this general rule. For example, you may be able to share the costs or have the estate pay for the work to the property if you are obligated under statute or municipal order to make the improvements, or because the property would become unmanageable if the improvements were not made.  

For more information, see: Kanawha Banking & Trust Co. v. Alderson, 129 W. Va. 510, 40 S.E.2d 881 (1946); University v. Tucker, 31 W. Va. 621, 8 S.E. 410 (1888); McDougal v. Musgrave, 46 W. Va. 509, 33 S.E. 281 (1899); Callwood v. Virgin Islands National Bank, 221 F.2d 770 (1955); Lynch v. Johnson, 196 Va. 516, 84 S.E.2d 419 (1954); Livesay v. Boyd, 164 Va. 528, 180 S.E. 158 (1935); 31 C.J.S. Estates §§29,41-43 (2009).