Legal life estates

Also called statutory life estates, the legal life estate is created by a law or statute. Each state has its own established parameters and requirements, and not all states recognize the three basic types of legal life estates:

  • Dower. This life estate protects the wife's interest. Dower rights refer to the legal life estate interest that a wife has in her deceased husband's property. The husband cannot transfer his wife's dower rights without her permission. This dower right usually remains applicable even if the wife is not on the property's title. [For example, Kevin sells their home without his wife Isabel's permission. When he subsequently dies (sometimes even before), Isabel can demand return of her dower interest from the buyer or title insurer.]
  • Curtesy. Similar to dower rights, this life estate instead protects the husband's interest. Dower rights refer to the legal life estate interest that a husband has in his wife's property. The wife also cannot transfer her husband's curtesy rights without his permission. This curtesy right usually remains applicable even if the husband is not on the property's title.
  • Homestead. This legal life estate was created to protect homeowners from creditors, by reserving a portion of the home's value against creditor demands and judgments for debt. The exemption amount varies by state. Most mortgage lenders will require home loan borrowers to waive their homestead exemption rights, so as to satisfy the lender's collateral requirements.

For more information about dower, curtesy and homestead rights, please see the "Spousal & Co-Ownership Rights" article.

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