What Is a Usufruct?

A usufruct is a legal right accorded to a person or party that confers the temporary right to use and derive income or benefit from someone else's property. It is a limited real right that can be found in many mixed and civil law jurisdictions. A usufructuary is the person holding the property by usufruct.

A usufruct combines the two property rights of usus and fructus. Usus refers to the right to use something directly without damaging or altering it, and fructus refers to the right to enjoy the fruits of the property being used – that is, to profit from the real property by leasing it, selling crops produced by it, charging admission to it, or similar.

Usufruct is usually conferred for a limited time period. It can be granted to the usufructuary, or person holding usufruct, as a way to look after property until the death of a property owner and the estate can be settled if the property owner is in ill health. While the usufructuary has the right to use the property, they cannot damage or destroy it or dispose of the property. A usufructuary does not have full ownership of the property, because they do not enjoy the third property right, abusus, which refers to the right to consume, destroy, or transfer ownership of the property to someone else.

How a Usufruct Works

In usufruct, a person or group has the right to use the property of another. They do not own it but have a contractually sanctioned interest in it. There are two types of a usufruct: perfect and imperfect. In perfect usufruct, the usufructuary can use the property, and can profit from it, but cannot change it in a substantial way. For example, if the owner of a business becomes incapacitated and gives usufruct to a relative to run the business for him or her, the usufructuary can run the business, but can’t sell it or tear down the building and rebuild it. In an imperfect usufruct system, the usufructuary does have some power to alter the property, such as when a landowner grants usufruct to a piece of land for agricultural use. The usufructuary may have the right to produce crops from the land and to make improvements to the land that would aid in that endeavor. However, the usufructuary does not own these improvements; when the usufruct ends, they belong to the original owner or to his or her estate.

Usufruct is only recognized in a few jurisdictions in North America, such as Louisiana. As an example, if a party has a usufruct in a real estate property, they have the full right to use it or rent it out and collect the rental income without sharing it with the actual owner, as long as the usufruct is in effect.

Usufruct Example

For example, Bert has been granted usufruct over Helen's property. Helen's property is a bed and breakfast with a large yard that needs tending. Helen is in ill health and can no longer tend to the property and run the business. Bert, as the usufructuary, has the right to use the property and run the business on Helen's behalf for the time the usufruct is in effect. The usufruct may be in effect until Helen's death when the estate will be settled and the property will be passed on per act of law or the directions in the estate.