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What is a Life Estate and Why Should You Want One?

A life estate is a legal arrangement in the field of property law where an individual, known as the life tenant, is granted the right to occupy or otherwise use a piece of property for the duration of their life. Upon the death of the life tenant, the property then passes to another person or entity, known as the remainderman. The reasons for establishing a life estate can vary, but they typically involve estate planning and property management goals.

Avoidance of Probate

A life estate can help in avoiding probate for the property. The key factor in a life estate avoiding probate lies in the automatic transfer of the property upon the death of the life tenant. Probate is the legal process of transferring a deceased person’s assets to their heirs or beneficiaries. However, since the transfer of property in a life estate is predetermined and automatic upon the death of the life tenant, it bypasses the need for probate.

Protection Against Creditors

In some jurisdictions, a life estate may offer protection against claims by the life tenant’s creditors, as the life tenant does not own the remainder interest in the property. Since the life tenant does not own the property in full, only their life estate interest can be subject to claims by their personal creditors. Upon the death of the life tenant, the property automatically passes to the remaindermen. This transfer happens outside of probate and is not part of the life tenant’s estate available to their creditors. Creditors of the life tenant typically cannot force the sale of the property to satisfy debts, as the life tenant only holds an interest for the duration of their life.

Tax Planning

In the context of federal estate tax planning, a life estate can be a tool for managing estate tax liabilities, especially when dealing with high-value properties. The value of the life estate is calculated based on the life tenant’s age and actuarial tables, potentially reducing the taxable value of the estate. It’s important to consider the impact on capital gains tax. Heirs who receive property through a life estate may not receive a step-up in basis at the life tenant’s death, which could result in higher capital gains tax when they eventually sell the property, compared to property inherited through a will or trust.

Medicaid Planning

In some cases, transferring property into a life estate is used as a strategy for Medicaid planning, to meet the eligibility requirements for long-term care assistance. When a senior transfers their home to a life estate, retaining the right to live in the home for the rest of their life, the home is typically not counted as an asset for Medicaid eligibility purposes once the Medicaid look-back period has passed. Medicaid’s look-back period is a critical factor. Transfers made within this period (currently 60 months for most states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut) can trigger a penalty period of ineligibility for Medicaid. Therefore, if the life estate is created within this period, it may adversely affect Medicaid eligibility. A life estate carries value, meaning Medicaid can out a claim against a life estate after the death of the participant.


It’s important to note that the rules and implications of life estates can vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances. Therefore, it is crucial to consult with a legal expert in estate planning. Contact Legacy Counsellors today at or (413) 527-0517.



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