Category Archives: Real estate

A stitch in time saves nine

By Patrice A. Putman, Maine elder law attorney

The old saying “A stitch in time saves nine.” makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, too often, people don’t know that there may be a legal “stitch” needed. Below is a situation that I’ve seen. Luckily, if discovered and fixed early, a client can save a lot of time, money, and frustration.

Most married couples own their home as “Joint Tenants”. This means that when one spouse dies, the property automatically becomes owned entirely by the other spouse. Nothing needs to be done to accomplish the change in ownership. In order for this transfer of ownership to the surviving spouse to happen automatically, the deed into the spouses must expressly state the concept that the spouses own as “joint tenants” or that the surviving spouse is to automatically become the sole owner of the home.

It is also possible for a married couple to own their home jointly, but as “tenants-in-common”. The home will be owned by the spouses as tenants-in-common if the deed is not explicitly a “joint tenancy deed”. If the home is owned as tenants –in-common, the surviving spouse does not automatically end up with ownership of the entire home. Rather the half owned by the deceased spouse must go through probate and title passes according to the will of the deceased or through the laws of succession (if there is no will). The property must go through probate, a personal representative must be named and the property must then be deeded according to either the Will or intestate laws.

There are times when a new widow or widower who thought she/he owned the property as a joint tenant finds that she/he did not.

Here is a hypothetical: Husband and wife own property together. The deed says “I seller, give to you, husband and wife, a piece of property.” This deed is a tenancy in common deed, something which the spouses didn’t understand and didn’t intend. Husband dies. Wife goes to a lawyer to see if she needs to do anything with regard to probate. All the bank accounts were jointly owned (no probate needed), life insurance had a beneficiary listed (no probate needed), the IRA has a listed beneficiary (no probate needed), cars were owned jointly (no probate needed). Then the lawyer asks to see the deed, and sees that the deed is not a joint tenancy deed. Now a probate estate must be opened, heirs must be notified, if there is a Will, the original must be found and filed, probate and attorney fees must be paid and a new deed will need to be executed and recorded. If the Will says “all to my spouse” then, after the personal representative has been appointed, a new deed can transfer the deceased spouse’s share to the spouse. If there is no Will or if the Will leaves part of the estate to others, the widow who thought she owned her house entirely, may now own it partially with children, step-children or others. Either way, things just got a lot more expensive and complicated.

Here’s the simple solution: Go look at your deed(s). If your deed(s) say you own the property as “joint tenants” or if the deed is clear that the surviving owner is to be the sole owner, then you are joint tenants and when one of you dies, the property will be owned entirely by the other automatically. If your deed is not a joint tenancy deed, then you and your spouse own as tenants in common. Once you understand how you own the property, then you can decide whether it fits your needs, or whether you need to see an attorney to get advice on whether your deed fits your needs. If a fix is needed, it’s an easy fix while both of you are alive. It may be needlessly expensive and upsetting if you find out after your spouse has died that the form of ownership didn’t work to your best advantage. This is clearly a situation where a stitch in time saves nine. Go read your deed! Make sure it says exactly what you need it to say, so that it does exactly what you want it to do. If you are not sure, get help sooner rather than later!

The information provided here is for educational purposes only. It should not be construed as rendering legal advice or offering an answer to a specific legal problem.

Using a trust or LLC to keep your vacation home in the family

Here in Maine (“Vacationland”), one of our favorite activities is going “up to camp.”  People treasure their waterfront property and hope that it will remain in the family for generations.   While it is impossible to control the future from your grave, you can increase the chances of the property staying in the family by placing the property in a trust or a limited liability company (LLC). Such an arrangement typically provides:


  • Who will make decisions about the property. If you use a trust, the decision maker(s) will be called “trustees” if you use a trust.  You might appoint one of your children as trustees, or perhaps all of them, to act as a group.
  • The arrangement will state how decisions are to be made about the property: Will one person make decisions unilaterally?  Or will decisions be made by a group, by majority vote?
  • Who will pay property taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance?  Will it be shared by all members of the family who get to use it?  What if one person can’t afford these expenses?
  • How will a schedule be arrived at, enabling different family members to use the property?
  • What if one of the beneficiaries isn’t using the property much and wants out of the arrangement?  Will other beneficiaries be required to buy him or her out? If so, how will they decide on a price?
  • What happens if a beneficiary dies?  Does that beneficiary’s share go to the other beneficiaries?  Or does it go to the deceased beneficiary’s children?

Families are often tempted to develop such an arrangement informally.  However, this type of arrangement is complex, requiring the consideration of many possible scenarios as well as tax considerations.  Therefore, it is essential to consult an attorney before deciding to go in this direction.  

 

Sally M. Wagley assists older and disabled people and their families in the areas of elder law,  estate planning and estate administration with the firm of Levey and Wagley, P.A. in Winthrop, Maine. Go to www.leveyandwagley.com.   

Should I give my house to my children?

           A question I often hear from clients is:  “Should I give my house (or camp) to my children?”  Clients often believe that deeding property to others will preserve it in the event of nursing home expenses. Clients may also want to avoid probate, or may want children to help with taxes, insurance and maintenance. It is essential for any client considering this move to know the risks and benefits.

 Possible benefits:

  • If the client is able to go five years without needing nursing home care, but later does need such care, the property will not count against the client if the client seeks financial help from the MaineCare (Maine Medicaid) program.
  • If the property is out of the client’s name at death, the State and other creditors will not have a claim against the property.
  • As a condition of transferring the property (especially a camp), children may agree to pay all or part of the property-related expenses, making life a bit easier for a client on a fixed income.
  • The client may, if desired, maintain a degree of control over the property with a life lease or life estate.*

 Possible risks (and some ways to reduce risks):

  • Nursing home expenses:  If the client needs nursing home care within five years after deeding the property, and if the client needs to apply for MaineCare (Maine Medicaid), the client will be penalized for the gift and will be ineligible for MaineCare for a period of months or years.  The client will either have to go without the needed care for that time period or will have to ask the children to pay for care until the period of ineligiblilty is over.
  • Loss of control:  Having given the property away, the client will need to get approval from the children if the client wants to sell or refinance the property.  (The client can, however, maintain the right to live in or use the property by insisting on a life lease or life estate.*) 
  • Child’s creditors or divorce:  If the child gets into financial trouble or bankruptcy or gets divorced, the child’s creditors or ex-spouse may be able to obtain an interest in the property. (However, the transfer of the property to an irrevocable trust may offer some protection against a child’s creditors or ex-spouse.)  
  • Child’s unexpected death:  If a child unexpectedly dies before the parent, the property may go to the child’s own heirs. (The irrevocable trust or a joint ownership arrangement may be helpful in this circumstance as well.)
  • Tax consequences:  If the client transfers a residence to a child and the property is later sold, there will be a capital gains tax, as the client will no longer be able to use the IRS primary residence exclusion.  The client may also lose property tax exemptions, such as the homestead and veteran’s exemptions.  In addition, the child may later, upon selling the property, pay a higher capital gains tax than if the child inherited it (unless a life estate* or similar arrangement is used).  

 Caution concerning life estates:  Be aware, however, that if you reserve a life estate in the property (treated differently  from a life lease under the State’s MaineCare rules), this  may expose the property at your death to a MaineCare “estate recovery” claim.

  Questions for clients:

          Before advising a client about whether to transfer property, I ask the client a number of questions, including: 

  • How is your health? What are the chances that you might need long term care in the next five years?
  • Do you have long term care insurance?
  • Do you have enough money to pay for nursing home care for all or most of the next five years?
  • Are you willing to give up a degree of control to your children? 

          In short, there is no simple answer to the question “Should I give my property to my children?”  While this may be a reasonable step for some clients, for others (especially older people with chronic health problems and little savings) the risks may be too great.  Any client considering this move should first obtain legal advice from a skilled estate planning or elder law attorney.


The information provided here is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice or an answer to your specific legal problem.

Sally M. Wagley practices elder law, estate planning and estate administration with the firm of Levey and Wagley, P.A. in Winthrop, Maine, www.leveyandwagley.com.