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  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

Life Estates

My grandfather left his house to his grandkids. It said in the will that my mom could live there until she died. Now she’s try to give the house to someone else. What can we do?

When most people think of being left something, such as a house, in a will, they think of it as theirs to keep. In the world of wills, what you give or receive in a will is sometimes called a gift. Most people believe that the gift they receive in a will is theirs outright, with no restrictions. However, this is not always the case.

Sometimes people will give property, such as a house or a farm, to another in their will as a life estate. A life estate is a way of giving a gift in a will, but instead of giving it outright, the gift is given to someone else when the first person dies. So in the example above, the mother has no control over what happens to the house after she dies. If she puts something about the house in her will, it won’t have any effect because she doesn’t have the right to give the house away after her death. When she dies, the grandkids will have control over the house.

However, while she is living, she can give the house and the life estate in the house to someone else. However, when she dies, the house will go to the grandkids. The only way for this to change is if the will is successfully challenged in court, or if the grandchildren agree to the change.

Why do people use life estates?

Most of the time, a life estate is given to someone who is living in the house or sharing the property with the person who owns the home or property. In the above example, it could be that the mother was living with the grandfather, and he didn’t want her to be stuck with nowhere to live after he died. Another example of this is when the other person is the second (or third, fourth, etc.) spouse of the person who owns the home. In that case, the spouse may have their own money, but had been living in the house for awhile. Because he or she has their own money and the testator (the person whose will it is) may have children that he would like to leave his estate to, the testator may give the spouse a life estate. This ensures that the house will eventually end up going to the children, but it also ensures that the beloved spouse won’t get kicked out of his or her home right after his or her spouse has passed away. There are some problems with this approach, however. The children may pressure the surviving spouse to move out so they can get the rest of their inheritance sooner. Or the spouse may not take care of the house, so it loses value.

As always, there are some exceptions to the way basic life estates are set up. Before you attempt to include one in your will, it is imperative that you speak to an estate attorney.

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