How Does a Person With a Life Estate Get Title to Property?

by John Cromwell

Life estates are a unique type of property ownership that allows different people to own land at different times. A life tenant owns and controls the property that is subject to a life estate for the rest of her life. Once the life tenant dies, another party, known as the remainderman, automatically receives the property and owns it outright. While the principle of life estates is straight forward, the administrative process of getting the property’s title in the name of the correct owner can be difficult. Property is subject to state law, so the process for transferring the title to life estate property will vary based on where it is located.

Executing the Life Estate Deed

Creating a life estate and transferring the title of the land to the life tenant requires executing a deed. On the deed you will need to provide the names of the people who own the property and are transferring it in the “grantor’s name” slot. If the property was purchased, you will also need to record the land’s price on the deed. Next you will need to record the names of remaindermen where it says “grantee’s name.” You will also need to provide the name of the county where the property is located, as well as the legal description and tax parcel number of the property. This information can be found on the land’s most recent property tax bill or mortgage documents. To create the life estate, write the name of the life tenant next to the property’s description and state that she “retains a life estate.” To complete the deed, the grantor must sign the deed in the presence of a notary public.

Delivering the Deed

The deed does not become binding until it is delivered. The easiest method of delivery is to give the document to the remaindermen. To protect her legal claim the remaindermen should “record” the deed by filing it with the Registry of Deeds in the county where the land is located. By recording the deed, the remainderman publicly establish their claim to the land, the life tenant’s rights to the property, and can serve as legal evidence regarding who owns the property in case of litigation.

When Life Tenant Dies

When the life tenant dies, while the property automatically reverts to the remainderman, it is necessary to take a few additional steps. The remainderman will need to obtain a copy of the life tenant’s death certificate and present it to the Registry of Deeds of the county where the property is located. In addition, the remainderman must provide an affidavit stating that the life tenant’s estate was not in excess of the federal estate tax exemption. If the estate was less than the exemption, the remainderman gets the property immediately. If the estate is more than the exemption, the remainderman gets the property after the life tenant’s estate tax has been paid.

Advantages of Life Estates

The chief advantage of a life estate is that it allows the property to be transferred to a person’s beneficiaries, such as children, without having to go through probate. Probate can be a long and expensive process. It also allows the life tenant to use the property for the rest of their life. Other estate planning methods require the owner to surrender ownership of property before her death.