Mother with young sons in front of house
What to do with the family home can be a difficult and highly charged topic for many families. After many years of practicing law, I have seen a lot of families trying to figure out whether to keep the home, sell it or let one family member buy it out. Many of these situations are emotionally charged with dysfunctional family dynamics at play. Often, the only thing holding the family together is the house itself.
Some situations end in litigation with any equity in the house being spent on legal fees. Others continue to linger for years until family members eventually reach an agreement or become tired of the fight and walk away. While dysfunction and family squabbling are issues that cut across all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic status, the recent events surrounding race and inequality in America underscore how this particular problem sometimes plays out differently for Black families.
Earlier this month, I heard an NPR interview with Michelle Singletary, the nationally syndicated columnist who writes “The Color of Money.” She was speaking passionately about Black people owning homes, how the cards are stacked against them, and how the financial system does not work for them. It reminded me of all the estates I have dealt with over the years involving Black families struggling with home ownership.
A typical scenario involves a family member coming forward to claim ownership in a family home that was once in a predominately Black neighborhood but has since been gentrified. Wealthy white families have moved in, driven up housing prices, and Black families can no longer afford to live there. Some cash out and move elsewhere, but others stay and try to make it work, bringing in other family members to help pay the bills.
The house can end up being one of only a handful of houses still owned by a Black family in the neighborhood. Once lovingly cared for by the original owners, the house has likely been neglected over the years. The person who steps forward explains that there are many family members now living in the home. A great grandparent or great uncle owned it and has long since died. Other family members have also died, leaving the house owned by a family tree of all sorts of people and estates. It quickly becomes a puzzle trying to figure out who actually owns the home and how legal title is vested.
Often the person coming forward lives in the house and has been paying bills and other expenses for years, usually rent free. She thinks that because she has paid the bills for all these years that she owns the home. Unfortunately, that is not the way things work.
A deed has to be pulled to see who has legal title. This is usually the last person who purchased the house. Then we build a family tree of who has since died, who left children and spouses, who had a will, and who died without a will. Inevitably the original homeowner did not have a will, which means an intestate probate. The state law decides who owns the house. Heirs can often be hard to locate. Some have moved out of state, some have died, some had children of their own who are now hard to find.
Over the years, more distant relatives have moved into the home because it was so large and they needed a place to live. Of the family members that are still living there, some are contributing to the expenses of the home, others are not. Oftentimes, there is someone living in the house who is not a blood relation but is referred to as one, which makes matters more confusing when disclosures of legal relatives have to be made to the court. I have had to explain to the court on more than one occasion why we listed someone on a petition as a child when they were in fact not actually a child. Of course, after we file our petition with the court, other people come forward to claim ownership.
When it is finally untangled, we know who actually owns the home and in what percentages. While it was a lot of work to get to this point, the real work now begins. Do the owners want to sell the house, keep it or let one or more family members buy it out – and at what price?
Unfortunately, the family members who have been paying the bills often end up with only a small sliver of ownership, but they want credit for all the years they paid bills. Those family members who lived elsewhere want those relatives who have been living in the house to pay rent for all the years they lived there.
The situation is costly and time consuming to rectify, often resulting in hard feelings between family members. There is no quick fix. It is not surprising that some people choose to walk away and do nothing. Maintaining the status quo of paying the bills and having a place to live – even without home ownership – can sometimes be a better option than dealing with the expenses and headaches of trying to figure out who owns the home.