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F. Life Estates

F. Life Estates

This is a topic that doesn’t fit neatly anywhere, but many people ask about it. When a person has a “life estate” in a piece of property (most commonly, a house and the contents within it), he/she enjoys almost the same rights in that property as would an “absolute” owner – but only for his/her life. The idea is best illustrated with a typical example, the “subsequent marriage” situation:

Assume that a widow who owns a home wishes to remarry later in life. It is decided that her new husband will sell his own house, and the couple will live in the wife’s home. The new bride wants to ensure that her children, not the new husband or his family, ultimately inherit her property. BUT she also wants to be sure that her husband will still have a place to live, if she dies before he does. So the newlyweds agree that the husband will have a life estate in the house. He can live there until he dies, then the property goes to the woman’s children (or to whomever she specifies). As a “life tenant,” the husband could do pretty much as he pleased with the house, but would be responsible for maintaining the property in good condition. Of course, he could not sell it.

A life estate can be created in a property deed, a will, a trust, or a pre-nuptial agreement. The best choice depends on the individual situation. But the devil is in the details, and this general explanation leaves many unanswered questions. So if you have a life estate and want to know your rights, or – especially – if you want to give somebody a life estate in property you own, please see a lawyer. There is obviously a lot at stake in seeing that this arrangement works as planned, and it is very easy to foul things up badly trying to “do-it-yourself.”

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