Tangled Title: Fictions vs. Facts
But first...what is a Tangled Title?
Having the title to your home means that your name is on the deed. “Tangled title” refers to the situation when you live in a home you own (or have a right to own) but your name is not on the deed.
Most often, titles get tangled because the person whose name is on the deed passes away and that person’s relatives continue to live in the home without putting the deed in their name. At that point, the surviving relatives have a tangled title because they inherited an interest in the home, but their name is not on the deed. However, there are other ways for titles to get tangled.
Fiction #1: If I am in charge of the estate, that also means I inherit the estate.
Fact: Being in charge of the estate and inheriting the estate are two different things.
The person in charge of the estate (the executor or the administrator) has to make sure that all of the stuff in the estate (house, car, clothes, jewelry, sentimental items, etc.) gets to the people inheriting the estate (the heirs).
We can see how this can work in two different situations: with a will, and without a will.
With a Will
The person in charge of an estate with a will is called the executor. This person has to make sure that all the stuff in the estate (house, car, clothes, jewelry, etc.) gets to the right heir, even when that person isn’t themselves.
Example: A mother (Kendra) dies, leaving two kids (John and Jack) and her sister (Joan). Kendra’s will appoints Joan as the executor, and leaves all her belongings to John.
In this situation:
- Joan is the executor, but not an heir. She is responsible for making sure John gets all of Kendra’s belongings.
- John is an heir, but not the executor. He should make sure Joan follows through on her duties.
- Jack is neither the executor nor an heir. He doesn’t have to do anything, but also doesn’t get anything.
In this situation, no one is both the executor and the heir. The person in charge of the estate (Joan) is not the person inheriting the estate (John).
Without a Will
The person in charge of an estate without a will is called the administrator. Like the executor, this person has to make sure that all the stuff in the estate (house, car, clothes, jewelry, etc.) gets to the right heir, even when that person isn’t themselves.
Example: Kendra dies without a will, leaving Joan, John, and Jack.
In this situation, Pennsylvania law will dictate who the administrator(s) and heir(s) are.
- Either John or Jack could become the administrator, or they could do it together as co-administrators.
- John and Jack are both heirs, and they will each inherit half of Kendra’s estate. This is true even if only one of them becomes the administrator.
- Joan is neither an administrator nor an heir. She doesn’t have to do anything, but she also doesn’t get anything.
In this situation, John and Jack are both heirs and administrators. Joan is neither.
- It’s important to know if your relatives have a will or not, and if they do, where it is. Wills are very powerful, and they are key to making sure your loved one’s wishes are respected after they die.
- If you are the administrator or executor, know what you are supposed to be doing. If you aren’t sure, talk to a lawyer.
- If you aren’t the administrator or executor, make sure you know who is, and what they are supposed to be doing. If you think they’re doing something wrong, talk to a lawyer.
- Figuring out who should be in charge and who gets what, especially during grief, is difficult and emotional. One of the best ways for everyone to protect themselves and their loved ones is to make sure you and your loved ones have a will that clearly states what you/they want.
Fiction #2: If I live in and take care of the house, then the house is mine.
Fact: The law uses other factors besides just who is living in the house and taking care of it to determine ownership. In rare and specific situations, just living in and taking care of a house might be enough to get ownership. However, in the vast majority of cases, there are other requirements, and it’s important to know what they are.
But why isn’t living in the house and taking care of it enough? I do it all by myself; no one else helps me. In an ideal world, everyone who had a claim to a house would pitch in equally to help take care of it, and everyone who helped take care of the house would have a claim to it. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Example: Kendra used to live in her home with her mom, Joan, until Joan passed away. Joan had another daughter, Carol, but Carol lives in California and stopped speaking to Joan ten years before Joan died. Since Joan died, Kendra is the only one who has been taking care of and living in the house. Carol has not been to the house in 20 years.
With a will:
Before she died, Joan wrote a will leaving the house to Kendra. Kendra owns the house, and should continue to take care of it and live in it for as long as she wants. Carol has no right or claim to the house.
Without a will:
Before she died, Joan told Kendra she wanted Kendra to have the house and didn’t want Carol to get it, but never wrote a will. Unfortunately, in this situation, both Kendra and Carol are each entitled to half of the house. Carol has all the same rights to the house as Kendra, even though Kendra is the only one who has been taking care of it.
That’s why it’s important to get legal advice if you aren’t sure about the ownership of the house you’re living in!
- If you don’t own the house, you can find out before you spend money or time taking care of it.
- If you do own the house, you can find out if anyone else also has a claim to it and might be somebody you can ask for help.
- If you’ve already spent time and money taking care of the house and it turns out it’s not yours, you can find out what your options are.
Fiction #3: The person whose name is on the deed says they want me to have the house when they die, so the house will be mine when they pass away.
Fact: It depends on how they say that. If they say it in a will, then yes, the house will be yours when they pass away. If they tell you a different way or just mention it in conversation, and you are not part of their immediate family, the likelihood is that some or all of the house will not be yours.
The frustrating truth is that the law only recognizes some relationships, and will still recognize those relationships, even if they aren’t meaningful to us. In fact, without a will, some of the people closest to us, like friends or fiances, have no legal right to inherit from us.
The best way to ensure that your belongings go to who you want them to go to is to have a will. If a loved one tells you they want you to have something of theirs after they die, encourage them to make a will. And if you are living in a house that you think should be yours because the owner told you they wanted you to have it when they died, you should get legal advice to get more information about your situation.
Fiction #4: My house is in someone else’s name, but it hasn’t caused any problems so I don’t need to worry about it.
Fact: The reality is that tangled titles don’t cause problems until they, well, do. But when a problem happens, it’s a big one, and really difficult to solve, even more so if your house is in someone else’s name.
Mortgage companies, utility companies, free home repair programs, Philadelphia’s property tax department, and so many others often can’t or won’t help you if your name isn’t on the deed, even if the house is yours. This means that if you ever want (or need) to refinance your home, apply for property tax or utility assistance, or take advantage of a free repair program, you might not be able to if your house isn’t in your name, even if you’ve been living there your whole life and the house is yours.
Leaving your house in someone else’s name also leaves you vulnerable to deed theft. Deed theft is when someone puts your house in their name without paying you, and often without you even knowing. Untangling your title can help protect you in two ways:
- People are less likely to take homes that are in the names of the people currently living there.
- Once the deed is your name, you can sign up Fraud Guard Alerts, a program that will e-mail you any time a deed is recorded in your name. Sign up here: http://epay.phila-records.com/phillyepay/eagleweb/fraudGuardSignup.jsp
The reality is that the best time to fix a tangled title is when it seems like there’s no reason to do it.
If you can afford a lawyer, you can call the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) at 215-238-6333. If you need free legal assistance, you can contact the Save Your Home Philly Hotline at 215-334-HOME (215-334-4663).