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Life Estate Property Disputes

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What is a Life Estate?

A life estate involves a transfer of an interest in real estate property from the owner to a recipient.  The recipient or “life tenant” assumes all the benefits of owning the property for their lifetime, with the property returning (reverting) back to a “remainderman” after their death.  

Thus, the main characteristic of a life estate is that it is limited in duration to the lifetime of the life tenant.  In some cases, the duration of the life estate may be limited by the life of another person, such as a spouse or child of the original property owner. 

Also, in some cases, the property may be transferred to a different person besides the original owner once the life tenant passes away.  These types of restrictions and limitations are usually specified in the written document covering the transfer. 

What are Some Types of Life Estate Property Disputes?

Life estates can be a particularly favorable type of transfer, especially where there is an interest in having the property revert back to its original owner.  However, due to its complex nature, life estate arrangements can often lead to various types of property disputes.

One common area of dispute involves the property owner’s duties.  For example, the life tenant has various duties to fulfill, such as protecting the property from encumbrances, and resolving certain real estate tax issues.  Failing to fulfill these obligations can harm the future interests of the remainder persons, and is often legally considered to be waste. 

Other types of life estate property disputes can involve:

  • One common dispute involves the property owner’s duties. 
  • Disputes over the identification, location, or descriptions of the property
  • Disputes as to who is the proper life tenant or remainderman
  • Disputes as to whether the life tenant can sell or transfer their interest in the property to an heir or other interest party

Most of these types of disputes can be avoided through clear, proper drafting of the transfer agreement, which generally requires the assistance and oversight of a lawyer.

What are Some Remedies for Life Estate Property Disputes?

Remedies for life estate property disputes can entail:

  • Monetary damages for losses caused by waste or mismanagement of property
  • Court-issued injunctions requiring transfer or surrendering of property
  • Rewriting or revising of the life estate contract documents

Of course, the remedy to be applied will depend on the nature of the dispute; in some cases, multiple remedies can be prescribed.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Life Estate Property Disputes?

Some life estate disputes can only be resolved through the intervention of the court due to the complexity of the legal issues involved.  If you have any questions or disputes about a life estate transfer, you may wish to contact an experienced lawyer in your area.  Your attorney can help you file a claim in court, and can review the relevant documents to determine your legal options.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 12-03-2012 03:43 PM PST

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