Washington property law is broader than “ownership rights and interest.” Ownership rights include: the right to “possess” property (i.e., the right to exclude others from using or occupying property) and the right to peaceful enjoyment of property.
Washington property law addresses types of ownership rights, limits on ownership rights, and transfer of ownership rights.
Most property disputes focus on the law of real property (i.e., land). Other types of property include personal property (e.g., cars, sneakers, books) and intellectual property (e.g., patents, trademarks, and copyrights). Most of Washington property law is codified in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) and the Revised Code of Washington (RCW).
Interests in Land– There are numerous types of rights in land. The law recognizes various “interests” in land; each interest consists of a legally recognized “bundle of rights.” A person’s entire interest in land is referred to as an estate in the land.
Interests in land can be categorized in numerous ways, such as according to the types of rights associated with the interest or according to the time when the rights become effective.
Accordingly, interests can be divided into those that are “ownership interests” (present freehold estates and those that are future freehold estates) and “contractual interests” (leasehold estates). Alternatively, interests in land can be divided into present estates (including present freehold estates and present leasehold estates) and future estates.
Below, we first address present estates (including present freehold and leasehold estates), then we address future estates. Non-possessory interests (contractual interests) are discussed separately.
1. Present Interests– Present estates in land grant an owner of the estate the immediate right to exercise ownership rights of land.
a. Fee simple absolute– A fee simple absolute freehold estate is an unconditional ownership interest in land. The fee simple absolute can only be terminated by the owner’s conveyance of the land. The fee simple absolute represents the maximum amount of ownership rights that can be attained. A fee simple absolute is created by a conveyance that states “to A” or “to A and his/her heirs.”
Washington property law recognizes fee simple as the maximum right any person can have on land. Thus, in any land conveyance, a grantee will want to ensure he/she receives the land in fee simple absolute. If he/she does not, then Washington property law will probably establish some other kind of conveyance with much lesser rights.
The nature and extent of the “bundle of rights” granted in land is determined by the laws of the state in which the land is located. The fee simple absolute is the maximum amount of rights granted by a state. Although it is the “maximum”, it is not without limit. Ownership rights are limited by other state laws and federal laws such as nuisance laws, eminent domain laws, and zoning laws.
b. Life estate– Washington property law also recognizes what is known as a life estate. A life estate is an ownership interest whose duration is measured by a specified individual’s life. The life estate terminates upon the death of the specified individual.
This estate in land does not descend to the heirs of the grantee; instead, the land returns to the grantor or some specified third party.
Example- Orville conveys Kitty Hawk to Wilbur in a grant that states “to Wilbur as long as he shall live.” Upon Wilbur’s death, Kitty Hawk returns to Orville.
The owner of a life estate may not exploit the land beyond the land’s “ordinary” uses (e.g., residential property can be used for a residence, mining property can be used for mining, etc.).
The owner of a life estate is responsible to future owners of the land if he/she uses the land beyond its ordinary use. Such abuse of land is known as “waste.”
2. Leasehold Estates (landlord/tenant law)- A leasehold estate is a present estate established by a contract (i.e., a lease) between a landlord (also referred to as a lessor) and tenant (also referred to as a lessee) which grants property rights to a tenant.
In the contract, the tenant receives a temporary possessory interest in land known as a leasehold estate. Please see our Washington property law section regarding landlord-tenant laws for more information.