Establishing a Life Estate is a relatively simple process in which you transfer your property to your children, while retaining your right to use and live in the property. Life Estates are used to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and protect the real property from potential long-term care expenses you may incur in your later years. Transferring property into a Life Estate avoids some of the disadvantages of making an outright gift of property to your heirs. However, it is not right for everyone and comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Life Estates establish two different categories of property owners: the Life Tenant Owner and the Remainder Owner. The Life Tenant Owner maintains the absolute and exclusive right to use the property during his or her lifetime. This can be a sole owner or joint Life Tenants. Life Tenant(s) maintain responsibility for property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Life Tenant(s) are also entitled to rent out the property and to receive all income generated by the property.
Remainder Owner(s) automatically take legal ownership of the property immediately upon the death of the last Life Tenant. Remainder Owners have no right to use the property or collect income generated by the property, and are not responsible for taxes, insurance or maintenance, as long as the Life Tenant is still alive.
- Life Estates are simple and inexpensive to establish; merely requiring that a new Deed be recorded.
- Life Estates avoid probate; the property automatically transfers to your heirs upon the death of the last surviving Life Tenant.
- Transferring title following your death is a simple, quick process.
- Life Tenant’s right to use and occupy property is protected; a Remainder Owner’s problems (financial or otherwise) do not affect the Life Tenant’s absolute right to the property during your lifetime.
- Favorable tax treatment upon the death of a Life Tenant; when property is titled this way, your heirs enjoy a stepped-up tax basis, as of the date of death, for capital gains purposes.
- Property owned via a Life Estate is typically protected from Medicaid claims once 60 months have elapsed after the date of transfer into the Life Estate. After that five-year period, the property is protected against Medicaid liens to pay for end-of-life care.
- Medicaid; that 60-month waiting period referenced above also means that the Life Tenants are subject to a 60-month disqualification period for Medicaid purposes. This period begins on the date the property is transferred into the Life Estate.
- Potential income tax consequences if the property is sold while the Life Tenant is still alive; Life Tenants do not receive the full income tax exemption normally available when a personal residence is sold. Remainder Owners receive no such exemption, so any capital gains tax would likely be due from the Remainder Owner’s proportionate share of proceeds from the sale.
- In order to sell the property, all owners must agree and sign the Deed, including Life Tenants and Remainder Owners; Life Tenant’s lose the right of sole control over the property.
- Transfer into a Life Estate is irrevocable; however if all Life Tenants and Remainder Owners agree, a change can be made but may be subject to negative tax or Medicaid consequences.