When it comes to the inheritance of property and other estate planning issues, one of the best protections often has to do with being married.  If someone passes away without a will in place, there is a good chance that someone he or she trusts (i.e., the spouse) will be able to step in and have a fair amount of say in what happens.  In fact, much of the property and assets will legally transfer directly to that spouse.

But what happens in situations where two people are not married but are living together?  This scenario isn’t at all uncommon.  While we often think of it as being an arrangement for younger people who simply don’t want to “tie the knot,” there are actually plenty of reasons that more mature couples decide to cohabitate without becoming legally married.  Widows and widowers may choose the companionship of a new partner but prefer not to give up survivor benefits by getting married, for example.  In the case of same-sex couples, being married may not even be an option at all!

What often happens is that one partner moves into a home already owned by the other.  No one thinks much about the fact that the new partner’s name isn’t on the deed or title to the house.  Unfortunately, this means that that partner has no rights to the property should the legal owner die.  Even if the couple lived together for decades, the surviving partner can be forced to leave the home so that the rightful heirs can do as they please.

Estate planning attorneys often work with these types of unmarried couples to create a life estate.  It allows for the surviving partner to live out the rest of his or her life in the home.  There are several reasons that this type of arrangement is useful:

  1. Each partner may have adult children with a desire for each partner’s estate to go only to his or her respective children.
  2. Family members who do not approve of the relationship can become vindictive, forcing the surviving partner out of his or her home.  The life estate prevents this from happening.
  3. Even those with good intentions become emotional or have financial concerns, and the temptation to sell or live in the parent’s house may lead to the other partner’s eviction.

Each situation is somewhat unique, of course, but an estate planning attorney with experience in life estates will be able to help you determine what is the most reasonable course of action for yours.  When you consider the peace of mind you’ll experience, a life estate isn’t all that expensive to set up, and it can protect you or your partner for many, many years to come.