When we pass away, our assets are divided into two groups – probate and non-probate. Non-probate assets are things like bank accounts and life insurance policies that you have named joint owners or TODs on – they transfer to the named beneficiaries upon your death without any court involvement. Probate assets are held only in your name. The court looks to your will, or the intestacy statute, if there isn’t a will, to determine who receives these assets. This can be a lengthy, and potentially costly, process.
One way to make your home a non-probate asset is to create a life estate. This concept was borrowed from old English property law. You, as the owner of the home, deed the home to yourself for life (making you the “life tenant”) and then to another person(s) known as the “remainderman” (most often your children). Upon your passing, the remaindermen immediately become the owners of the home (they just need to file a copy of your death certificate with the Registry of Deeds).
Creating a life estate has many benefits. First, upon your passing, your home transfers seamlessly to the remaindermen without any court involvement. Second, you are guaranteed the right to remain in your home for the rest of your lifetime – you cannot be compelled to sell or move out. Next, after your passing, the remaindermen receive a step-up basis for capital gains purposes, minimizing the capital gains tax due should they decide to sell the property after your death. Fourth, because the remaindermen have no ownership interest in the home until after your death, their creditors (in the event of a bankruptcy or divorce, for example) cannot access the equity in the home during your lifetime. Lastly, the entire value of the home can be protected from your nursing home costs so long as the life estate is created at least five years before you ask MassHealth for assistance in paying for nursing home care (more on this below).
Creating a life estate, however, has its potential pitfalls. First, the remaindermen must all sign off if you decide you want to mortgage, reverse mortgage or sell the property. The thought of giving up so much control can be frightening for many homeowners. (It’s worthwhile to note that your remaindermen should have their own powers of attorney in place, in the event you need their approval and they are out of the country, in the hospital, or otherwise incapacitated.)
Also, if you need to ask the state for assistance in paying for nursing home care in the five years following the creation of a life estate, you could be disqualified for a period of time. MassHealth uses a formula to calculate the “value” of your life estate based on your life expectancy and the value of the home. The disqualification can also be cured if the remaindermen agree to deed the property back to the life tenant outright, destroying the life estate. If it’s likely that you’ll be asking MassHealth to help pay for your nursing home care in the next five years, then you should meet with an elder law attorney to explore other options to protect the value of your home to the greatest extent possible.
A life estate deed can be a valuable addition to your estate plan. If you’re interested in learning more about life estates and whether this might be the right solution for you, call our office to schedule a planning session.