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Life Estate Deed Laws

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What is a Life Estate?

“Life Estate” is a legal term that describes a kind of joint ownership in real estate. It allows one person to hold an interest in and remain in a property until his or her death. However, the holder does not own the property outright in that he or she is not permitted to leave the property to anyone in their will, a trust, or deed.

This is because the holder’s interest in the land does not survive after the person dies. The holder of a life estate is known as a “life tenant.” A life estate can be created by will, trust, or deed.

How Does a Life Estate Work?

Let’s say person A is married to person B. Person A owns Blackacre, where A and B both live. Suppose A states in a deed that Blackacre would go to B for life, then to C.

A dies and B is allowed to occupy, possess and enjoy Blackacre. Upon B’s death, the property automatically goes to C, known as the “remainderman.” The remainderman is the person to whom the property is deeded upon the death of the life tenant.

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Why Might I Want a Life Estate?

Creating a life estate by deed may be desirable for any of the following reasons:

  • Avoid Probate: A life estate is a way to pass your home to your children or other beneficiaries without having to go through probate. If you die and own property in your name alone, the property will have to go through probate, which can be expensive, lengthy, and stressful for your heirs and beneficiaries.
  • Tax Planning: If you retain a life estate in your property, it continues to be an asset of your estate. It also allows your children to have a step-up in basis, meaning they can inherit the property at the value determined at the date of the parent’s death instead of the date upon which the parent purchased the property. This allows your children to avoid paying capital gains tax if the property’s value is not greater at the time of sale.
  • Ensure Protection for Life Tenant: Many people decide to utilize life estates for peace of mind in order to ensure their loved ones can remain in the property for the rest of his or her life. For example, if a person remarries and wants to make sure his new wife won’t be kicked out of their home after he passes by his children, he may deed her a life estate.

What Responsibilities Do Life Tenants Have?

If you hold a life estate, you have the following responsibilities:

  • Pay the mortgage
  • Pay property taxes
  • Pay insurance
  • Make necessary repairs on the property

What if I Have a Dispute Over a Life Estate?

Life estates disputes are generally resolved through a civil lawsuit. This may result in a damages award issued to either the life tenant or the remainderman, depending on the losses experienced by each.

For example, a fraudulent transfer of a life estate interest can affect both the life tenant and the party whom the life estate is supposed to revert to. 

This will usually require a detailed analysis of the deed documents; hence, it’s always best for the deed document to be preserved in writing and recorded with the county office.

Do I Need to Seek Legal Counsel with Life Estate Deeds?

Drafting and reviewing life estate deeds and any other real estate documents usually requires the assistance of a lawyer.

If you have any questions or disputes over a life estate deed, you may wish to be matched with a knowledgeable real estate attorney in your area. Your attorney can assist you with the deed documents and can represent you in court if you need to file a legal claim.

Photo of page author Erin Chan Adams

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 07-25-2018 07:37 PM PDT

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