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life estates

By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga Esq.

THE FACTS: Many of my friends have told me that I should transfer my house to my son and retain a life estate.  

THE QUESTIONS: What are the pros and cons of doing that?

THE ANSWER: People often transfer their property to their children and create life estates because they believe it is the best way to increase their chances of being Medicaid eligible or to avoid probate. In most cases, there are better ways to achieve those goals. 

Before the Medicaid look-back period was changed to five years for all nonexempt transfers, life estates were a very popular part of Medicaid planning. However, since the look-back period is now the same whether you transfer a residence and retain a life estate or put the residence in an irrevocable trust, there is no advantage to creating a life estate when it comes to the look-back period. 

The downside of a life estate from a Medicaid planning perspective is the fact that, if the house is sold during your life time, you are entitled to a portion of the proceeds from the sale. The percentage of the proceeds allocated to you would be governed by life expectancy tables and is surprisingly large. 

For example, if you, as the life tenant, are 80 years old when your $300,000 house is sold, you will be entitled to approximately $130,000 of the proceeds. In the context of a Medicaid application, that $130,000 will be deemed an available resource and may result in a denial of benefits. This is true even if you created the life estate more than five years before you apply for Medicaid. 

If, on the other hand, you transferred the house into an irrevocable trust, even if the house was sold, the proceeds would be fully protected in the trust after the five year look-back period. 

With respect to avoiding probate, if you transfer your house to your son during your lifetime and create a life estate, the house will not be subject to probate when you die, the value of the house will not be included in your gross taxable estate (although the value of the transferred share may be subject to federal gift tax) and you will continue to enjoy any real estate tax exemptions that were applicable to the property before you deeded the house to your son. 

However, if the house is in your son’s name, his creditors can attach liens or judgments to the property. If you create a life estate, you will be required to file a gift tax return reporting the gift of the property to the IRS. 

Finally, by creating a life estate you may be subjecting your son to a capital gains tax liability. That is because your son will not get the step up in basis when you gift him the house that he would get if he inherited your house after your death. 

For example, if you paid $150,000 for the house 20 years ago, your son’s basis in the house if you gifted it to him would be $150,000. If he sells the house after you die, he will have to pay capital gains tax on the increased value of the house. 

If, on the other hand, he inherits the house after your death, he will get a step up and his basis in the house will be the date of death value. Unless he holds on to the house for an extended period of time, it is unlikely that your son will have any capital gains tax liability. 

If your goal in creating a life estate is to avoid probate, a better alternative to a life estate is a revocable trust. Although transferring your house into a revocable trust does not provide protection from estate taxes, it does avoid the need for filing a gift tax return, it protects the house from your son’s creditors and it will allow your son to get a step up in basis when he inherits the house after your death. 

There are clearly many issues to consider when deciding whether a life estate, revocable trust or irrevocable trust offers the best solution for you. The cost of each option is also a consideration. Since creating a life estate can have far-reaching consequences, it is important to discuss your goals and your options with an experienced attorney before taking action. 

Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning, real estate, marital agreements and litigation. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

By Linda Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: My mother’s will provides that her house will be sold and the proceeds divided equally between me and my brother. However, because she was concerned about needing long-term care, a few years ago she signed a deed transferring the house to my brother and retaining a life estate in her favor.

THE QUESTION: Am I likely to see any of the proceeds when the house is sold?

THE ANSWER: Unfortunately, if your mother has already passed away, it is unlikely that you will get anything when the house is sold unless your brother is willing to essentially gift you one-half of the proceeds. That is because a will only controls the distribution of assets that are owned by the decedent at the time of her death.

Here, your mother does not have an ownership interest in the house but simply a right to live in the house until her death. When she dies, that right dies with her. As such, the provision in the will pertaining to the division of the proceeds from the sale of the house will be ignored.

If you mother is still alive, competent and sorry that she transferred the house to your brother, she can remedy the situation in a number of ways. She can, of course, revise her will so that you receive a larger portion than your brother of other assets that may be passing under her will. She can also change the beneficiary on her nonprobate assets like IRAs, 401(k)s and/or life insurance. Neither of these strategies require your brother’s cooperation, but they will only work if your mother has assets worth about one-half of the value of the house.

If your brother is cooperative, your mother’ assets are limited and she is not already receiving needs-based government benefits, your mother and brother can sign a new deed either adding you as a co-owner or transferring the house back to your mother. The will would then control. This solution will require the preparation of a new deed and transfer of documents and the filing/recording of the deed but will not require your mother to change her beneficiary forms or her will.

If transferring the house again will put your mother’s benefits at risk, she and your brother can sign a written agreement in which (1) your mother states that it was not her intent in transferring the house to “gift” it to your brother and (2) your brother states that when he sells the house, he will split the net proceeds 50/50 with you.

If the agreement provides that you are an intended beneficiary of the agreement between your mother and your brother, and specifically states that it is binding upon the heirs, successors, assigns and executors of the parties signing the agreement, you will have an enforceable legal right to one-half of the proceeds.

It is important that any agreement that may be signed by your mother and brother pertaining to the house include the “heirs, successors, assigns and executors” language since, without that language, the agreement, like your mother’s life estate, will die with your mother.

Because there are so many issues to consider when deciding if and how to insure that you receive a share of the proceeds from the sale of her house, your mother should discuss this matter with an experienced estate planning attorney. The attorney can explain the pros and cons of each option that may be available to your mother so that she can make an informed decision. Only then can she be sure that her actions will not adversely impact her down the road and that her wishes will be honored.

Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning, probate, estate administration, litigation, wills, trusts, small business services and real estate from her East Setauket office.