I recently came across two life estate situations that proved
disastrous. In one case, the disaster befell one of the
remaindermen. In the other, the life tenant learned a hard
The initial issue with the life tenant's situation is probably
quite common. Specifically, the life tenant wanted to take her full
fee interest back, not realizing that the transfer was irreversible
unless the holder(s) of the remainder interest(s) agree otherwise.
However, one of the remaindermen had died with heirs who were very
happy to have the windfall and saw no reason to relinquish it.
The remainderman's situation involved a family "estate plan" of
which the remainderman was unaware. After suffering serious
financial setbacks, she regrettably learned that she had an
interest in real estate that was subject to attachment and not
exempt in a bankruptcy, whereas all her other interests were safe.
The remainder interest was lost to creditors and the intent of the
life tenant was not realized.
A common thread in both situations was that they were set up by
new attorneys in solo practices. There has been a lot written about
the legal profession's decline in providing jobs for law school
graduates and the corresponding decline in opportunities for
mentoring afforded by chatting with one's employer. We all come out
of law school with a lot of knowledge and a method of thinking
suitable for starting out in this profession. However, very few of
us start out with the everyday practical aspects of using these
assets. I think that the use of life estates in the two situations
described above is an example of how a little mentoring could have
gone a long way. A young attorney struggling in his/her own
practice may short cut seeking some practical advice and apply a
simple solution in an age where "keep it simple" may be an overused
I feel fortunate that I came into this profession as an
associate with a number of practitioners under one roof with whom I
could consult to learn the practical applications of a law school
education. Since that time I have been fortunate enough to always
have an associate or partner with whom I could consult about or to
whom I could delegate the estate planning clientele that naturally
developed from an active residential real estate practice. I hope
that new attorneys starting out, particularly those who find it
necessary or preferable to start out on their own, will be afforded
opportunities to readily avail themselves of the experience of
those of us who learned on the job by way of the long-standing
traditions of this profession.