Deed to house; Life Estate; Remainderman

Deed to house; Life Estate; Remainderman

My mother has life time rights to a house she deeded to me and my sister. My sister passed away recently. Can the deed be changed by my mother removing my sister name from the deed? My sister did not indicate anything about the house in her will.


Sorry for the loss of your sister.

It sounds like your mother transferred the ownership of the house to you and your sister while retaining what is called a "life estate", the right to use the house for life. The question is now that your sister pre-deceased your mother, what happens with your sister's interest. You'll really need to evaluate a couple of sources to be sure of the answer. The key and first source is the legal document that created the current ownership structure. That should be the deed that you received from your mother. Did the deed transfer the house from your mother to "Brother and Sister, as joint tenants with right of survivorship" and also subject to your mom's life estate? If so, then the rights your sister had to the property would now be owned by you. If the deed stated that it was to "Brother and Sister, as tenants in common" then your sister owned her half interest in the house (subject to a life estate of your mom) and her will (or if none the laws of intestacy in her state) should govern. The state law of the state in which mom's house is located could be vital in interpreting what the deed means. Also, the terminology used can vary from state to state. So you need a local real estate lawyer to help you sort out this part of the puzzel.

Depending on the answer to the above, if 1/2 of the remainder interest (that's what you and your sister get in the house after your mom's life estate ends) that your sister owns could be subject to her will (or if someone didn't have a will, your sister did, the laws of intestacy of her state). Even that is not clear if the house and your sister are in different states. Then conflict of law issues may have to be considered in sorting this out. While in most instances for real estate the law of the state where the property is governs, this needs to be addressed. For example, if the property is a cooperative apartment, it may not be treated as real estate for these purposes. That doesn't seem to be your case, but it might affect other readers. Once this is confirmed, then you might need to sort through your sister's estate to see what happens where her 1/2 of the remainder interest in your mom's house. That might require a local probate/estate attorney.

While this all sounds more complex than your mom probably anticipated, you'll have to sort it through to get the right answer. It is important that you do all of this property, with proper legal guidance, since you don't want to have a problem when at some future date you go to sell the house and a title insurance company won't insure the buyer. However, difficult it is to clean up and resolve these issues now, it will only be much worse in the future.

Finally, call an insurance company and make sure that the house is adequately insured and that all owners are covered (named insureds). This might mean naming your sister's estate and executor under her will until the issues are all sorted out.

There are other articles on this website that explain the various forms of ownership of a house. Also, sometime in May 2007 a lecture on that vary issue should be posted to the seminar materials section of this site.

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