What are the Benefits of Creating a Life Estate?

By: Nick Leydorf
estate planning and elder law attorney
Meet Nick Leydorf
My practice is dedicated to helping families get their affairs in order so that they can stay out of court and out of conflict. I’ve experienced first-hand how a lack of planning can have a terrible impact on a family. One morning, my wife received a phone call that her mother had been found unconscious in her bathroom and had been rushed to a local hospital. We panicked and drove to Grand Rapids as fast as we could to be with her. For two weeks, she never regained consciousness and she passed away. My wife and I were devastated.
Once you create a life estate, property rights vest in your heir.

Quicken Loans’ recent article entitled “What Is A Life Estate And What Property Rights Does It Confer?” says by understanding the features of a life estate and creating one at the right time, you can enjoy several benefits, including the following:

Property Avoids Probate. Property in a life estate doesn’t go through probate. Instead, it just transfers ownership to the remainderman. This saves time and stress. It also eliminates the complications that arise when trying to spell out your intentions for your property in a will.

Property is No Longer Part of The Estate. Once your state’s Medicaid look-back period has passed, a property transferred through a life estate won’t count against your eligibility for the program.

Allows Seniors to Stay in Their Homes. Even though a life estate transfers property ownership to the remainderman, the life tenant has guaranteed residency, if desired, for the rest of the owner’s life.

While life estates are helpful, they have some drawbacks:

Property is Vulnerable to Debts Of Heirs. Because the life estate transfers property rights to a designated heir, his or her creditors may have the right to seize inherited assets to cover lingering debts, if there are any.

The Heirs’ Rights to The Property Vest at Creation. Once you create a life estate, the property rights vest in the heirs. You can’t take back those rights without the heir’s consent. As a result, some seniors use a living trust, in which its creator can always change the terms or cancel it entirely.

Property Can’t Be Sold or Mortgaged. If you want to significantly change the property, convert it into a rental, or even decide to sell, you must have the remainderman’s permission.

In sum, life estates help elderly homeowners create a straightforward, legal directive for an heir to inherit property without getting mired in probate.

Life estates also permit the owner to control the property in all respects, except they can’t sell or mortgage the property without the consent of their heirs. If created in a “timely” manner, a life estate can even help its creator qualify for Medicaid assistance.

However, life estates do have a few disadvantages.

As the life tenant, you’ll forfeit the ability to sell or mortgage your home without your heir’s permission.  Since you can’t reverse a life estate without the consent of both the life tenant and remainderman, you should know all about the contract before committing to it.

Reference: Quicken Loans (Aug. 9, 2022) “What Is A Life Estate And What Property Rights Does It Confer?”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Medicaid, Wills, Probate Court, Inheritance, Asset Protection, Revocable Living Trust, Probate Attorney

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