Usufruct, usus and habitatio are personal servitudes. These servitudes are sometimes considered as an estate planning tool to reduce estate duty, but testators don’t always realise what this entails and the burden it could place on the heirs.
What is a personal servitude?
A personal servitude is always constituted in favour of a particular individual on whom it confers the right to use and enjoy another’s property. This servitude is enforceable against the owner of the property that is burdened with it but cannot be transferred by the personal servitude holder. It may be constituted for a fixed term or be granted until the occurrence of a future event or for the lifetime of the beneficiary, but not beyond his death.
How is a personal servitude constituted?
It is usually constituted by a last will, but can also be created by agreement.
A usufruct is a right that entitles a person to have the use and enjoyment of another’s property and to take its fruits without impairing the substance. For instance, the object of a usufruct over a farm will normally extend not only to all buildings but presumably also to livestock, farming equipment and the furniture in the homestead.
The general duties of the usufructuary
The usufructuary is only entitled to the use and enjoyment of the property; he does not acquire ownership of it. The usufructuary may not consume or destroy the property, but he is obliged to preserve its substance. The property must be used in the manner it was intended to be used. A new manner of exploitation is, however, permitted if it is considered to be the sensible thing to do under the circumstances.
Right to fruits
The usufructuary may take, consume or alienate the fruits, whether they are natural, industrial or civil. This means that the usufructuary is entitled to all the products of the land and all profits and revenues derived from the property. The young of animals as well as all products derived from the animals, including milk, wool or eggs become the property of the usufructuary. The usufructuary acquires the ownership of natural and industrial fruits by gathering it or by someone else gathering them in the name of the usufructuary. Growing crops are regarded not as fruits but as part of the soil and must be gathered and separated from the soil first. Fruits not gathered at the expiry of the usufruct do not pass to the successors of the usufructuary. Civil fruits (for example rental income or interest) become the property of the usufructuary when due. On the expiry of the usufruct civil fruits are divided between the now former usufructuary and the owner of the property in proportion to the time for which the usufruct existed.
Repairs and expenses
The usufructuary is bound to maintain the property and to defray the costs of all current repairs necessary to keep it in good order and condition, fair wear and tear excepted. He is also responsible for paying all rates and taxes. Payment of insurance premiums, costs of capital expenditure such as structural reinforcements necessary to prevent a building from falling into ruin and other similar costs, are excluded from his responsibilities.
If the usufructuary makes improvements to the property he is not entitled to compensation, though the improvements made can be removed, provided the usufructuary makes good any damage that their removal may cause.
A usufructuary may not alienate or encumber the property, but he may dispose of the right to the use and enjoyment of the property and its fruits whether by sale, lease or loan, provided that such arrangement does not exceed the period for which the usufruct has been granted.
A usufruct is usually created for the lifetime of the usufructuary, but sometimes for a fixed period, terminable on death.
Juristic acts by the owner
The owner may not do anything to prejudice the usufructuary’s rights. The owner may not prevent, hinder or diminish the right of use or enjoyment and may only burden the land held in usufruct with a predial servitude if the written consent of the usufructuary has been obtained. Any further actions by the owner regarding the property, for instance the sale of the property and the registration of a mortgage bond, require the consent of the usufructuary. The owner together with the usufructuary may mortgage the property, or the usufructuary can abandon his preference so that the mortgage is registered free from the usufruct. Most banks prefer the latter.
A servitude of use or usus resembles a usufruct but the holder’s rights are far more restricted. If the property is movable he may possess and use the property and if the property is immovable he and his family may occupy it. The holder may take the fruits for his and his family’s daily needs. The holder may not sell any fruit, nor may he grant a lease of the property. There are a few exceptions, for example should the house be too large for the holder’s use, he may let a portion of it. The holder’s use must, however, be without detriment to the substance of the property.
The servitude of habitatio confers on its holder the right to dwell in the house of another, together with his family, without detriment to the substance of the property. The holder may grant a lease or sublease to others.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omission excepted. (E&OE)