For some reason, my office has gotten some cases which were kicked off because someone died without a will and their heirs started suing each other.
It is very unfortunate that family members can be so hostile to each other, but money does odd things to people and an estate that is up for grabs fuels a lot of decidedly fierce behavior.
Still, some survivors can take solace in Arkansas’ homestead exemption. What’s that? Simply put, it means that a surviving spouse can live in the marital home for the rest of his or her life provided some conditions are met.
First off, the couple must have been married for at least a year for the homestead exemption to apply. Second, the surviving spouse must not have another home. Since those two conditions are quite common, knowing the homestead exemption exists is important if a matter goes to probate and there is no will and other estate plan in place.
That exemption gives the surviving spouse a life estate in the marital home and holds it free and clear of any claims filed against the estate. If there’s a massive hospital bill or some other debt, then, other estate assets will have to be tapped to cover those bill.
It is important for the surviving spouse to realize, though, that the homestead exemption only grants a life estate – the home will pass to other survivors after the death of that spouse. The spouse should also know that he or she can also reserve a life estate in one-third of the remaining estate property, can take household furnishings and can receive up to $4,000 in personal property.
Additionally, the surviving spouse can take one-third of the remaining state after the homestead exemptions and other assets are deducted. Things do change quite a bit when minor children of the deceased and the surviving spouse are present, but the homestead exemption effectively makes sure the decedent’s immediately family has somewhere to live.
It could be, too, that the surviving spouse can effectively argue the home is marital property under several circumstances and can take outright possession of it. In cases where people married later in life and moved into a home that one of them already owned, however, the house might not be marital property but the chances are good the homestead exemption will apply.
Of course, any confusion about what his marital property, what is protected through the homestead exemption or anything else can be cleared up with a will or (better yet) a trust. Good estate planning can avoid a lot of trouble down the road.
Still, Arkansas law can deal with the problem of people dying without an estate plan and surviving spouses worried about becoming homeless should take comfort in the homestead exemption. It is a great feature of estate law in Arkansas, but a surprising number of people don’t know it exists.
This column was authored by Ethan C. Nobles and originally appeared in the April 25, 2016, edition of the Daily Record in Little Rock.
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