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What is a life estate?

For many families who go through the process of setting up an estate plan there can be many nuances to the different items that are needed to be taken care of.Last week we discussed how the family of Robin Williams has ended their legal battle. One of the settlements was for the spouse of Robin Williams and how she was granted a life estate of their home before it is passed to his heirs. So what is a life estate?

Many families choose a life estate for their property. A life estate is a way to let a person live in a property during their lifetime. When they die it passes to another person or even an organization. The person who is granted a life estate to remain in the property is referred to as the life tenant. There are several reasons why a family may want to have a life estate on their property.

In the Robin Williams case, a life estate was established to have his current wife stay in the family home until she dies. When she dies the property will then be passed to his children. This is a way for remarried couples to keep the family home in the family and prevent the spouse from selling the house or not allow the children to inherit the house upon the other spouse's death.

Another reason to set up a life estate is to pass a farm to the children after the parent's death. The parents can choose who they want to the farm to go to and then set up a life estate. On the death of a spouse the other spouse may not change the life estate or alter who is the beneficiary of the property. This can be a problem if life circumstances change and one of the property beneficiaries decides they no longer want to farm.

One additional reason to set up a life estate is to donate the property to charity. A person can choose a charity they want to receive their property and receive tax deductions while they are alive. Once the life estate has been set up it cannot be changed.

Source: Montana State University, "Life Estate: A Useful Estate Planning Tool," Joel Schumacher and Marsha A. Goetting, accessed on Oct. 18, 2015

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