Is A Life Estate Right for You?

Jack and Jill are healthy and in their sixties. Jill’s friend’s husband has Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Jill’s friend spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-term care costs at the private pay rate, before qualifying her husband for Medicaid. Jill’s friend had a life estate, and now Jill and Jack are convinced that they need one, too.

Giving Away a Remainder Interest is Like Having Major Surgery or Getting a Tatoo.

Personally, I have nothing against medically necessary surgeries and high-quality body art. However, just because your friend has one, doesn’t mean that you need a life estate. It’s almost never that simple. To determine your best strategy, a seasoned elder law and estate planning lawyer will gather the important facts and assess the client’s objectives and wishes.

Jack and Jill have a beautiful home that they want to protect for each other and for their adult children. They might transfer their home into an irrevocable five-year Medicaid trust. That is a trust that Jack and Jill cannot undo and to which they have no ability to receive the income or the principal of the trust. If Jack or Jill should later wish to qualify for Medicaid to pay for long-term care, neither can have any ability to take the property or its income back out of the trust under any circumstances that could reasonably transpire under the terms of the Trust Agreement.

Often, homeowners don’t feel comfortable giving up control over the family home to a Trustee, who is often a financially responsible adult child. If Jack and Jill don’t want to relinquish control over the home, retaining a life estate and deeding the remainder interest in the home to their adult children may be another option for them.

What is a life estate?

A life estate is the right retained by the owner of the home to continue using and occupying the home, for the rest of the life of the owner. The owner remains responsible for the carrying costs and maintenance on the home during the life tenancy. The owner typically gives away a remainder interest. Upon the death of the life estate holder (who is referred to as the life tenant), the life estate which they held during lifetime, expires with them.

Advantages of Life Estates

Life estates can be a strategy to allow a surviving spouse in a second marriage to stay in the marital home after the death of the first spouse, and while also ensuring that the biological children of the predeceased spouse will ultimately inherit the house. A life estate may also be a way to provide a home for a dependent adult child upon the death of the parent. However, if the dependent adult child is not a financially capable person, a trust may be a better option. Depending on the circumstances, an irrevocable trust, a revocable lifetime trust, or a testamentary trust for a special needs or dependent child, with or without a life estate, may be a more appropriate solution.

Sometimes, life estates can be beneficial in Medicaid planning because they are generally not subject to a Medicaid estate recovery upon the death of the life tenant. In some cases, a parent may consider purchasing a life estate in a child’s home and residing in the child’s home for at least a year.

If the life estate is retained in the home owned by the life tenant, and the life tenant gives away a remainder interest, the life tenant can retain control over their right to stay in their home for the rest of their lives. Unlike with a 5 year Medicaid trust, the life tenants don’t have to worry about someone else (i.e., their Trustee) selling their home against their wishes. As the life tenants, if the home in which they hold the life estate is their primary residence and they are then living in the home, they can continue to receive the senior real property tax rebate (NJ Division of Taxation – Senior Freeze (Property Tax Reimbursement) | Eligibility Requirements ( and if applicable, they can also continue to receive the veteran’s exemption for real property taxes on the home. New Jersey State Veteran Benefits |

Capital Gains Income Tax Savings with Life Estates

As far as capital gains income taxes are concerned, if Jack and Jill sell the home during their lifetime and they lived in the home as their primary residence for at least two of the five years prior to the sale of the home, they can take claim the IRC 121 capital gains exemption for gains from the sale of a principal residence. If Jack and Jill are married filing jointly, this could allow them to legally exempt up to $500,000 in net home sale proceeds from long-term capital gain income taxes, which are typically taxed at either the 15% or 20% rate, with the 15% rate being most common. Topic No. 409, Capital Gains and Losses | Internal Revenue Service (

Problems with Life Estates

However, there is a major downside to the use of life estates in Medicaid planning. To return to Jack and Jill’s situation, if Jack and Jill hold back a life estate and their house is sold during their lifetime, they are entitled to the portion of the house sale proceeds corresponding to the value of their life estates. this means that if Jack or Jill needs care in a nursing home, their portion of the house sale proceeds is an available resource to them and must be accounted for in any Medicaid spend down. What typically happens with the sale of a home subject to a life estate during the five-year Medicaid lookback period is that the life tenant must spend down his or her or their portion of the net home sale proceeds.

Another drawback of the life estate is that if the remainder interest holder (typically, the adult children of the life tenants) have issues with poor credit, bankruptcy, divorce, substance abuse or gambling problems, then they would not be suitable remainder interest holders, due to the concern that their remainder interest could be taken into consideration in the adult child’s divorce, or liened to satisfy a judgment against the adult child.

Alternatives to Life Estates

An alternative to a life estate retained by the ill spouse is to simply transfer the deed into the name of the healthy spouse. This strategy can avoid Medicaid estate recovery (or a Medicaid lien) on the home after the sick spouse qualifies for Medicaid and subsequently passes away.

A life estate may not make sense if the home is going to be sold during the lookback period, if the home is not the primary residence of the life tenant, or if the proposed remainder interest holders have financial or addiction issues.

If the real property in question is a vacation home or a rental property, other options may include a limited liability company with an irrevocable assignment of the limited liability company interest to an irrevocable trust, or a qualified personal residence trust. The appropriate strategy will depend on the use of the property and the goals of the family in question.

In conclusion, just because your friend has one, doesn’t mean that a life estate is the best option for you. The takeaway is that there is no one-size-fits-all Medicaid plan and a life estate is not always the best solution. For a personalized assessment of your elder care planning challenges, contact Jane at Fearn-Zimmer Elder Law ( or telephone number (856) 938-8578.

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